After months of dodging the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions elected to finally stop by for an oversight hearing on Wednesday. While much of the hearing’s terse exchanges, such as those between Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Sessions, centered on the ongoing probe into Russian interference into the US election, there were some other notable moments, as well.
During his lengthy harangue of an opening statement, Sessions claimed law enforcement using “scientifically proven policies” can lower the crime rate. Yet, Sessions himself suspended the National Commission on Forensic Science. The commission, which was tasked with making recommendations “to enhance the practice and improve the reliability of forensic science,” drew attention to the shocking degree to which boulderdash pseudoscience makes its way into court as “evidence.”
Sessions also made repeated references to a rise in crime, perhaps in order to justify his draconian rollback of any reforms made to stem the tide of mass incarceration. Yet, Sessions’ claim that America is in the midst of a violent crime wave has been repeatedly debunked, including by our friends at the Brennan Center. The Washington Post fact checkers gave this claim four pinocchios.
Sessions also claimed “We will also not shy away from defending the First Amendment rights of every American. We stand ready to enforce federal law, to protect the right to speak and to assemble peacefully, and to defend the free exercise of religion at a time when it is under threat.”
Sessions, as we noted during his confirmation, has shown a lifelong contempt for the First Amendment. As Alabama Attorney General, he was found to have violated the First Amendment rights of a LGBTQ student group, casting serious doubt on his recent outspokenness on free speech at college campuses. On top of this, Sessions’ DOJ is currently engaged in a deeply disturbing prosecution of nearly 200 people arrested during a Trump inauguration protest. The prosecution rest largely on a guilt-by-association theory of liability, in which attending a protest where unlawful acts occurs makes all participants guilty. Those charged face 8 felony counts and up to 75 years in jail.
During the hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked if Sessions would pledge not to jail reporters for doing their job. Sessions declined to do so. In fact, the DOJ is currently doing just that. Amongst those facing decades in prison for felony rioting is journalist Aaron Cantú. It is for doing his job that Cantú faces up to 75 years in prison. He was swept up in a mass arrest while covering the protest and is being charged alongside protesters.
Later during the same hearing, Sessions refused to condemn Trump’s assertion that news networks publishing stories he didn’t like should lose their licenses. Instead, Sessions just stated it was a free country and Trump had the right to express himself freely. While Trump does have the right to express himself freely, the Attorney General of the United States should be able to affirm the president cannot deprive others of their free expression due to their viewpoint.
For those concerned with what impact Jeff Sessions as Attorney General would have on civil liberties, there was little to alleviate those concerns during this week’s oversight hearing.