What did Ses­sions' 'An­glo-Amer­i­can her­itage' com­ment last week mean?

South Florida Times - - NATION - By SADIE GURMAN As­so­ci­ated Press

WASH­ING­TON - At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions last week praised a group of sher­iffs from around the coun­try for their ser­vice, veer­ing from a pre­pared speech to note that “the of­fice of sher­iff is a crit­i­cal part of the An­glo-Amer­i­can her­itage of law en­force­ment.'' The re­mark im­me­di­ately drew out­rage from at least one mem­ber of Congress and from the NAACP, which said it was “racially tinged'' and “should give all peo­ple rea­son to worry.'' The turn-of-phrase ac­tu­ally refers to the le­gal her­itage shared by the United States and Eng­land, from which the role of the sher­iff orig­i­nated. Other of­fi­cials have said the same with­out much no­tice.

A look at what it means and why some were up­set when Ses­sions said it:


The com­ment stood out, es­pe­cially be­cause it came from Ses­sions, a for­mer Repub­li­can se­na­tor from Alabama who has faced ques­tions about race through­out decades of pub­lic life, in­clud­ing dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings last Jan­uary. Al­le­ga­tions of racially charged com­ments cost him a fed­eral judge­ship in the 1980s, and civil rights groups re­main skep­ti­cal about his com­mit­ment to their in­ter­ests, cit­ing his roll­backs of Obama-era poli­cies that aimed to re­form crim­i­nal jus­tice and polic­ing. Ses­sions has de­nied be­ing racially in­sen­si­tive.

The NAACP said the An­glo-Amer­i­can com­ment was just the lat­est of Ses­sions' deroga­tory re­marks and “an un­for­tu­nate yet con­sis­tent as­pect of the lan­guage com­ing out of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice un­der his ten­ure.''

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Demo­crat from Hawaii, called it dog-whistle lan­guage in­tended to “pit Amer­i­cans against each other'' and said he had no re­grets about vot­ing against Ses­sions' con­fir­ma­tion.


The same ter­mi­nol­ogy might not have caused such a stir if in­voked by some­one else. In fact, it was hardly no­ticed when Barack Obama made sev­eral ref­er­ences to the “An­glo-Amer­i­can le­gal sys­tem'' in re­la­tion to the habeas cor­pus rights of Guan­tanamo Bay de­tainees, first as a se­na­tor and then as pres­i­dent.

In 2009, for ex­am­ple, he said he hoped to close the de­ten­tion cen­ter in Cuba in a way “that ad­heres to rule of law, habeas cor­pus, ba­sic prin­ci­ples of An­glo-Amer­i­can le­gal sys­tem, but do­ing it in a way that doesn't re­sult in re­leas­ing peo­ple who are in­tent on blow­ing us up.”

Other Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials have spo­ken of it, too, with­out gen­er­at­ing much at­ten­tion. Ref­er­ences to the sub­ject can be found in case law and in Supreme Court de­ci­sions.


Some of the sher­iffs who heard the speech said they in­stantly knew what Ses­sions meant but un­der­stood why oth­ers may not. Sher­iff David J. Ma­honey, of Dane County, Wis­con­sin, said he rec­og­nized it as a le­gal ref­er­ence but re­ceived emails from peo­ple who viewed it dif­fer­ently.

Ses­sions was re­fer­ring to the his­tory of the Amer­i­can le­gal sys­tem, and more specif­i­cally to the ori­gins of the mod­ern- day sher­iff. “Since our found­ing, the in­de­pen­dently elected sher­iff has been seen as the peo­ple's pro­tec­tor, who keeps law en­force­ment close to and amenable to the peo­ple,'' Ses­sions said.

The of­fice traces its roots to An­glo-Saxon Eng­land, where sher­iffs were elected and their de­part­ments struc­tured sim­i­larly to the Amer­i­can sher­iff of to­day.

Re­spond­ing to in­quiries about Ses­sions' com­ment, Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman Ian Prior said: “As most law stu­dents learn in the first week of their first year, An­glo-Amer­i­can law - also known as the com­mon law - is a shared le­gal her­itage be­tween Eng­land and Amer­ica.The sher­iff is unique to that shared le­gal her­itage.''


Jeff Ses­sion faces back­lash over "An­glo-Amer­ic­fan Her­itage of Law" com­ment

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