Under the Obama administration, Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch dedicated Justice Department resources to areas such as civil liberties, voting rights, same-sex marriage, environmental and consumer protection.
Elections have consequences, however, and President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions, has a new mandate.
Sessions, the 69-year-old Alabama senator, is likely to change course and place a greater emphasis on more traditional criminal law areas such as drug and immigration enforcement. He would take a narrow view of the scope of federal authority in other areas and emphasize deference to the states.
Resources aren’t endless, and as head of the department, Sessions will have to consider where to devote his. Under the Obama administration, for example, DOJ brought a lawsuit challenging Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Its lawyers also fought back hard against a lawsuit brought by states challenging the President’s executive orders on immigration. And in the area of gay rights, the administration chose not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011, a federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
“The average American may have a hard time seeing how shifts in enforcement priorities within the Justice Department affect their daily lives, but the impact can be substantial,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN legal contributor and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
“Whether it’s in how much (or how little) to enforce anti-discrimination laws against local governments or private employers, how aggressively to enforce (or not enforce) drug laws, or taking a different position on the relationship between the federal government and the states with respect to immigration, the environment and other hot-button topics, how resources are allocated has potentially monumental substantive policy implications,” Vladeck added.
“Sessions will bring a dramatically different ideological vision for the role of the Justice Department, ” said Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at Case Western Reserve University. “This will occur across the board and because of his years on the Senate Judiciary committee, his influence may also extend to judicial nominations.”
Critics of Sessions are preparing for the worst. They say a man who has encouraged the investigation of Hillary Clinton, and who himself lost a chance to serve on the federal judiciary in 1986 after allegations of racism, shouldn’t get the job as America’s top lawyer.
“It is a blatantly inflammatory act in a time of heightened focus on violence and injustice of communities of color,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice.
One area that Sessions is sure to target is immigration.
Immigrant rights attorneys – still stung by the fact that Obama’s executive orders were blocked– were quick to respond to the nomination, saying it should “send chills down the spines of all Americans.”
“Under Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions has been pushed from the fringe into the center of American politics,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “As a result, women, immigrants, the Black community, the LGBTQ community and anyone who cares about justice and equality for all being are being pushed out.”
But Sen. Ted Cruz, who himself was under consideration for the post, struck back at Sessions’ critics at an appearance at the conservative Federalist Society on Friday and said that Sessions is a necessary change of course from the Obama years.
“We need all hands on deck,” Cruz said, and noted that many of the lawyers in the room might land in the new administration. “Do not follow the example of the previous administration,” he warned, speaking about the need for deregulation and a reining in of the power of administrative agencies.
“We must rebuild our legal culture,” Cruz said.
Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society who has met with Trump concerning Supreme Court nominees, agreed.
“The one thing you have to know about Jeff Sessions,” said Leo, “is that he believes deeply in the rule of law.”
“He is going to want to have a Justice Department that is a most fitting example of an institution committed to the rule of law, integrity and getting it right legally, because that’s what he believes in. “
Supporters of Sessions say he will help change the way Washington works.
“He is not intimidated by the liberal media or the Washington establishment,” said Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation. “He should easily be confirmed.”
The Alabama senator is on his home court before his colleagues in the Senate, and already has the backing of one Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
“He knows Senator Sessions, considers him a friend’s and believes he can work with him,” Manchin spokesman Jonathan Kott told CNN.
But he won’t get a free pass.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, set to take over as the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, warned it might not be smooth sailing.
“Senator Sessions has served on the Senate Judiciary Committee for many years so he’s well aware of the thorough vetting he’s about to receive,” she said. “While many of us have worked with Sen. Sessions closely and know him to be a staunch advocate for his beliefs, the process will remain the same: a fair and complete review of the nominee.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.