As attorney general of the United States, Sen. Jeff Sessions says, he simply would enforce the law. He would put ideology aside and play no favorites.
As if it were that easy.
In response to questioning during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Sessions made it clear he might not personally believe in a woman’s right to have an abortion, for instance, but he accepts that it is “the law of the land.” So, too, he said, with respect to same-sex marriage. It is the law, he said, and his job would be to enforce the law.
As a sales pitch, that line of reasoning served the conservative Alabama Republican well. His fellow senators, even Democrats, generally went easy in their questioning, in part because he avoided potential conflicts by soft-pedaled reality.
In truth, every attorney general sets priorities, informed by his or her own values, because there’s no way around it, even when they do not overtly politicize the office. Sessions implied he would do just that when, during the Senate hearing, he vowed that as attorney general he would step up prosecutions for guns crimes, singling out Chicago as a town that could use the help. About that, we could not agree more.
Even a big federal bureaucracy has a limit to its resources. A nominee might say “I’ll enforce the law” — they all do say that — but every attorney general is afforded huge latitude as to which laws to enforce aggressively. Certainly former Attorney General Eric Holder, appointed by President Obama, did that, unapologetically choosing not to enforce certain immigration and marijuana laws.
The attorney general also heads the powerful Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the executive branch, including the president. That creates another opening for an AG to lean this way or that. Under President George W. Bush, the office provided the legal justification for torture and surveillance of American citizens who were not suspected of crimes.
It matters, then, that Sessions holds unfortunate views on many of the big issues of the day. It matters that he has a retrograde public record on voting rights, climate change, same-sex marriage, the environment, immigration, incarceration, free speech and religious freedom.
We are a nation of laws, but men and women enforce those laws. Or they do not.
Sessions is sure to be confirmed as our nation’s next attorney general. Brace for a Justice Department that takes a hard turn to the right.Tweets by @csteditorials