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What Influence Could An Attorney General Jeff Sessions Have?


President-elect Donald Trump has started making cabinet appointments, and they are already controversial. As appointments continue to roll out, we'll bring you multiple perspectives. Today, one view of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is the president-elect's choice for attorney general. He's a former U.S. attorney for Alabama, and his selection has been celebrated on the right and strongly criticized on the left because of his record on issues such as immigration and race.

To tell us more, we're joined by Georgetown law Professor Paul Butler. He is a former federal prosecutor. And he is a critic of Senator Sessions' record on civil rights. He's with us now from New York. Professor Butler, thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Michel. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Now, if I have this right, you have yourself worked at the Justice Department when there was a change in administrations, correct?

BUTLER: Indeed. And there's always a shift in priorities. The thing is there's something different about Sessions. So when Donald Trump made his infamous comment about how he likes to grab women in their private parts, Sessions said he didn't think that that was a crime. So either the man who would be the nation's chief law enforcement officer doesn't know what sexual assault is or, more likely, he's just an extreme partisan.

And that would be concerning because Donald Trump as a candidate said he wanted to put Hillary Clinton in jail. He says he wants to investigate Black Lives Matter. So the question is whether Sessions would be an independent attorney general, or would he be the president-elect's henchman?

MARTIN: Well, tell us more broadly, though, about how it normally works when the Justice Department transitions between leaders of different political parties. I mean, most of the lawyers there are so-called career lawyers. They are not political appointees. Correct?

BUTLER: Indeed. And they work for numerous agencies within the attorney general and Justice Department's office, including the FBI, the DEA, the immigration courts. There's literally thousands of people, most of whom are hardworking career lawyers and staff members. The Justice Department leader has one of the most powerful positions in government. So if we think about things like Guantanamo Bay, FBI versus Apple, immigration, all of those come under the rubric of the Justice Department.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that. How much real influence does the attorney general have as far as shaping national policy?

BUTLER: You know, Michel, there's literally so many federal crimes that no one can count them. We know that there are at least 4,000. And that's just a criminal law. So there's no way that any attorney general can enforce all the laws, so each AG decides which ones she wants to prioritize. Eric Holder's Department and then followed by Loretta Lynch has focused on criminal justice reform, things like getting rid of private prisons when they're used to house federal employees, ratcheting down the war on drugs. It's likely that under William Sessions, the Department will go in the opposite direction.

MARTIN: Well, give us just another example, if you would, about how you think his views on different issues - for example, voting rights - would affect policy.

BUTLER: So the Voting Rights Act is considered the most successful civil rights law of all time. Sessions called it a piece of intrusive legislation. Now, to his credit, he did vote to authorize it, but - reauthorize it, but that was a unanimous vote. When we look at what he did when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama, the chief federal law enforcement officer there, he brought criminal charges against people who were trying to register, African-American voters, in Alabama.

A man named Mr. Turner marched with Martin Luther King. He was known as Mr. Voter Registration. Sessions prosecuted him. A judge threw out half of the charges, and on the charges that remained a jury acquitted. So again, this is someone who a lot of people think is just hostile not only to affirmative action or more progressive civil rights bills, but just something like voting registration.

MARTIN: But to be fair - and we only have about half a minute left, Professor Butler - a new administration does have the right to reset its priorities, does it not? Are you suggesting that his actions would go beyond what is customary and appropriate in resetting the priorities of a department? That's in fact what elections are about, right?

BUTLER: That's right. So there are things like the Department's support for marriage equality, for hate crimes, for pay equity for women. That's, you know - it's a big deal, but it's also politics in the sense that any Republican administration might think differently. Again, the issue with Sessions is whether he's truly going to be independent. We've got courageous Republican attorney generals and Democrats who's gone against the administration in the past, who've gone against the president because they want to do the right thing. The question is would Sessions do that?

MARTIN: We need to leave it there for now. That was Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler. He's a former federal prosecutor. And as he mentioned, he served in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Professor Butler, thanks.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this conversation, Paul Butler mistakenly refers to Sen. Jeff Sessions as “William Sessions.” Also, he inadvertently says prisons are used to house federal “employees,” instead of inmates.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 21, 2016 at 10:00 PM MST
During this conversation, Paul Butler mistakenly refers to Sen. Jeff Sessions as "William Sessions." Also, Butler inadvertently says prisons are used to house federal employees instead of inmates.
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