Sessions will undo decades of progress

Story highlights

  • Laura Coates: Sessions' appointment as AG is latest signal of an impending ideological shift
  • President-Elect Trump's choice will roll back progress made under Holder and Lynch

Laura Coates is a CNN legal analyst. She is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Follow her @thelauracoates. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)The inevitable confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions -- Donald Trump's nominee to be attorney general as the successor of Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, the first African-American male and female to hold that office, will slow, if not halt, the momentum gained during the last eight years to reform our criminal justice system.

Holder and Lynch prioritized combating racial profiling and selective policing within communities of color.
    Laura Coates
    In a twist of fate, by contrast, Sen. Sessions' judicial appointment by President Reagan to the federal bench stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee -- the very committee on which Sessions now sits. Their refusal to confirm him was largely the result of a number of racially charged statements Sessions allegedly made in the 1980s.
    But a man who, because of those statements, was previously deemed unfit to preside over a court of law, may now preside over the Department of Justice, placing the future of any progress made on Holder's and Lynch's watch in doubt.
    Sessions' statements will most assuredly be used as Democratic fodder during his confirmation hearing. But with a Republican majority, the confirmation hearing will largely be a formality.
    His rhetoric will, however, have a big impact on minority perceptions of the prominent civil rights agenda of the Department of Justice, which has gained increased visibility and scrutiny in an era of publicized police shootings.
    Under Attorneys General Holder and Lynch, the Department of Justice has made powerful strides to restore racial minorities' faith in the criminal justice system.
    They acted with an eye toward reversing the devastating impact that President Bill Clinton's omnibus crime bill had on communities of color, and reducing the astronomical incarceration rate that resulted from harsher penalties imposed for possession and distribution of crack cocaine (more prevalent in economically disadvantaged communities of color) than those imposed for powder cocaine (which was more prevalent within affluent white communities).
    Yet even under successive African-American attorneys general, the widely publicized use of excessive and deadly force by police officers against unarmed black men, and the seeming inability of local prosecutors to secure convictions against those officers, has all but depleted the faith of communities of color in the department's ability achieve its mission.
    Indeed, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division was intended to act as a backstop against failed state prosecutions and serve as a neutral advocate for communities who feared that the objectivity of local prosecutors would be compromised by personal relationships or prejudices.
    But with each failure to indict, mistrial and acquittal, the department has been criticized for its lack of effectiveness to ensure justice for communities of color.
    Still, Holder and Lynch were vocal about their intolerance of civil rights violations. They were vocal even when they recognized the limitations on their ability to prosecute such violations under a body of Supreme Court precedent that is overwhelmingly deferential to police officers' assessment of the appropriate amount of force to use.
    The perception of a powerful and conscientious watchdog in the Justice Department's top job gave communities hope for the future and tempered the backlash in response to perceived miscarriages of justice.
    Surely Jeff Sessions, a man accused of calling prominent Civil Rights groups like the NAACP "un-American," and condemning the Klu Klux Klan for supposed marijuana use (rather than its legacy of hate), will further undermine the African-American community's faith that his department will act in -- let alone prioritize -- the interests of communities of color.
    But if the presidential election has taught us anything, it is that offensive rhetoric, perhaps even 30 years removed, may be wholly irrelevant to people who prioritize other issues more.
    Frankly, it remains to be seen what types of criminal prosecutions Sen. Sessions will indeed prioritize, but he has already shown his hand as a political operator. Remember when then-candidate Trump promised to instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton? Sen. Sessions has already called for a deeper investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Attorney General Sessions would have prosecutorial power.
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    More than anything, Sessions' appointment is an obvious forecast of the impending ideological shift across multiple branches of government.
    With one Supreme Court vacancy in hand, and perhaps another two in the bush, Sessions' nomination signals that President-elect Trump is prioritizing a reversion back to a time when America, and its justice system, was "great." Sen. Session reiterated that same message on Trump's campaign trail. When it comes to prosecuting civil rights violations, let's hope Sen. Sessions' reference point of greatness is at least in this century.