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What You Should Know

Jeff Sessions & U.S. Attorney General

President Donald Trump selected Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, as his Attorney General, a critical post that can affect everything from environmental law to civil rights.

Sen. Sessions is an untenable choice for Attorney General. Here’s what you should know about Sen. Sessions and the powers he will hold.

Senator Jeff Sessions speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., October 7, 2011. (Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0
Update: February 8, 2017, 4:30PM PT

Sessions is confirmed as Attorney General by the full Senate (52–47).

Jeff Sessions—whose civil rights history was so troubling that a Republican Senate refused to confirm him as a federal judge in the 1980s—was confirmed today to serve as U.S. Attorney General. “Sessions’ abysmal record of opposition to fundamental civil rights and environmental protections disqualifies him for service as head of our federal department dedicated to justice for everyone in our country,” said Martin Hayden, Vice President of Policy & Legislation. “Earthjustice will hold Sessions accountable in the court of law.”

What does the U.S. Attorney General do?

The Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer for the U.S. federal government and head of the Department of Justice. The Attorney General is sworn to enforce and uphold all laws of our nation, including the laws that protect our right to a healthy environment and the laws that uphold our fundamental civil rights. There is no fixed term length for the Attorney General position.

This is how the Attorney General affects your life:

1. The Attorney General appoints key leadership positions within the Department of Justice,
including Assistant Attorney General of the Environment and the head of the Civil Rights Division, the chief civil rights enforcement agency in the country. These positions determine how—and whether—the Department of Justice enforces our civil rights and environmental laws, and whether the Department fights environmental injustice.
2. The Attorney General sets enforcement priorities.
The Department of Justice has limited resources. It cannot necessarily enforce against every violation of every law, so the AG decides what types of cases to take to court, or disregard. If environmental or civil rights cases are at the bottom of this Attorney General’s priorities, fewer—if any—of these cases will be accepted for prosecution and fewer resources will be devoted to enforcement.
3. The Attorney General decides the official position of the United States on all court cases in which the nation is a party or has an interest,
including in the U.S. Supreme Court and all other courts, domestic and foreign. The Attorney General decides which cases to pursue or defend and guides the government’s response.
4. The Attorney General is personally involved in major cases.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, for instance, played a key role negotiating a $20 billion settlement with BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

How is Earthjustice’s work impacted by the Attorney General?

Earthjustice takes the government to court to ensure it follows and enforces laws protecting our air, water and environment. But polluters and their allies also sue the government, in attempts to weaken key environmental safeguards. While Earthjustice intervenes in some of these cases to oppose such industry challenges, we need a strong Department of Justice that stands up to polluters and vigorously defends our environmental laws.

Who is Sen. Jeff Sessions?

An Alabama senator since 1997, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III previously served as Attorney General of Alabama and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

What is Sen. Sessions’ record on environmental protection?

He has a dismal record on the environment, climate change and pollution control efforts. A climate change denier, Sessions has opposed nearly every piece of global warming and environmental legislation since 1997.
This year, Sessions opposed amendments in the Energy Policy Modernization Act that would have incentivized energy efficiency, phased out fossil fuel subsidies, and established a national energy efficiency standard.
In 2012, he supported a resolution that would roll back protections from toxic mercury which EPA estimates prevent 11,000 premature deaths a year. Also, during a Senate hearing on climate science, he refused to accept that 97 percent of climate scientists believe that global warming is happening and humans are causing it.
Sessions has voted to defund renewable and solar energy development, voted against tax incentives for renewables like solar and wind, and favored the renewal of oil and gas exploration subsidies. On its most recent National Environmental Scorecard, the League of Conservation Voters scored Sessions in the single digits: an appalling 4 percent—and 7 percent over his whole career, placing him in the lowest quarter of all senators.

What is Sen. Sessions’ record on civil rights?

He has a record of hostility to civil rights and voting rights and has faced allegations of repeatedly making racially offensive statements.
In 1981, after being appointed U.S. Attorney by then-President Ronald Reagan, Sessions attracted national attention by prosecuting three civil rights workers for voter fraud. The case was widely viewed as baseless and a malicious prosecution aimed at suppressing the black vote. Sessions is on record calling the Voting Rights Act “a piece of intrusive legislation.” (The Voting Rights Act is the key federal law that has enabled African Americans throughout the South to have access to the ballot.)
Allegations that Sessions made racially offensive remarks doomed his 1986 appointment by Reagan to the federal district court. During the confirmation hearings, a black federal prosecutor alleged that Sessions had referred to the NAACP as “Communist-inspired” and “un-American.” He also testified that Sessions had called him “boy” and allegedly said the Klu Klux Klan was “ok, until he learned they smoked pot.” Sessions became only the second nominee to have his nomination killed by the Senate Judiciary Committee—a Republican-led committee—in 48 years.
Sessions is a defender of the idea of banning Muslims from entering the United States. He supports the building of a 2,000-mile border fence or wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and the idea of banning Muslim immigration to the United States—and is an opponent of marriage between same-sex couples. Sessions opposes immigration reform, and wants to restrict legal immigration into the United States. Sessions is expected to reverse the focus on civil rights that was prioritized by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

What is Earthjustice’s position on Sessions’ nomination?

“Senator Sessions' record on civil rights is reprehensible, especially on matters of racial justice and marriage equality. On the environment, he is on record as a climate change skeptic, and given his stance on civil rights, it is clear that he is not a champion for environmental justice. His extreme view on climate is reflected in a hostile Congressional record against our bedrock environmental protections.
“As an organization that fights in court for fundamental rights to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities, we oppose the appointment of someone who has shown such disregard for these protections. And we are severely troubled about Sen. Sessions being tasked with upholding our nation’s laws when his comments indicate his belief that the laws protect some groups and not others.
“Earthjustice strongly believes that President-elect Trump should retract this announcement or the Senate should reject this nomination.”

How have some of Earthjustice's partner and client groups responded to Sessions’ nomination?

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund:
“Jeff Sessions has a decades-long record—from his early days as a prosecutor to his present role as a Senator—of opposing civil rights and equality. It is unimaginable that he could be entrusted to serve as the chief law enforcement officer for this nation's civil rights laws. This is yet another signal from the incoming administration that it is not only prepared to turn its back on equality, it is actively working to continue to sow division and undo decades of progress.”
Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:
“This nomination is deeply troubling to Americans who care about equal protection under the law. Throughout his tenure in the Senate, Sen. Sessions has been one of the chamber’s leading antagonists of immigrants and the LGBT community, continuing his long record of obstructing civil rights that began in his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.”
Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club:
“Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s selection to be the chief law enforcement official in the United States as Attorney General, is a proven opponent of environmental protection, civil rights and civil liberties. His atrocious voting record on environmental issues shows that he absolutely cannot be entrusted to defend and enforce the laws that protect our air, our water, and our communities.”
The League of United Latin American Citizens:
“Sessions has been aggressively anti-immigrant throughout his political career; having proposed to build a border wall long before Donald Trump. He has received the lowest scores possible on both the NHLA and NAACP Congressional score cards and he has been praised by the white supremacist anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform as the most nativist Senator in Congress—a label that Sessions has embraced.”
Nan Aron, President of Alliance for Justice:
“The choice of Senator Sessions to lead the Department of Justice is more than deeply unsatisfactory; it is a blatantly inflammatory act in a time of heightened focus on violence and injustice against communities of color … The proposed nomination of this person as a candidate for this position is a shocking gesture of hostility toward millions of Americans, and should be immediately rejected.”

How was the Attorney General confirmed?

The Senate Judiciary Committee—of which Sen. Sessions was the ranking Republican—handled the Attorney General nomination, deciding when to hold hearings and when to move the nomination to a floor vote. The Attorney General is confirmed by a simple majority of the full Senate. (The vote cannot be filibustered due to a change in rules by Democrats in 2013 that Republicans are expected to adopt in January.)