The Senate narrowly confirmed Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general Wednesday, effectively putting the controversial Alabama senator in charge of all federal law enforcement agencies.
Sessions survived a rough confirmation process that saw Democrats raise concerns about his record on civil rights, immigration, and the role of federal law enforcement. He was confirmed 52-47 in a vote that split along party lines.
As the leader of the Department of Justice, Sessions has virtually unchecked authority to reverse or repeal many reforms enacted by the Obama administration, including those having to do with marijuana legalization, LGBTQ rights, and immigration enforcement.
Here are five issues he may target right away:
So-called voter fraud
Trump has repeatedly vowed to launch an investigation into what he has characterized as massive voter fraud during the 2016 election — despite a total lack of evidence that the fraud actually occurred. Trump asserted, without offering any proof, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes due to undocumented immigrants and others voting illegally.
Sessions could immediately launch a probe into Trump’s claims. In 1985, when Sessions was Alabama’s attorney general, he led an unsuccessful effort to prosecute three black civil rights advocates for voter fraud, a move widely criticized at the time as an effort to discourage voting by African-Americans. Sessions maintains to this day that pursuing their prosecution was the right decision.
Sessions has proclaimed that “good people” don’t smoke marijuana, and he has maintained a hardline stance against legalization. He now oversees the Drug Enforcement Administration and could roll back the Obama administration’s hands-off policy on state-level legalization, a proposition that has legal weed advocates and cannabis-industry entrepreneurs very nervous.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions asked former Attorney General Loretta Lynch during her confirmation hearing in 2015 about the issue of state-level marijuana legalization. He praised the opposition of previous attorney generals to legalization, saying that their position “kept bad decisions from being made.”
Under former Attorney General Eric Holder, the DOJ published a memorandum in 2013 that outlined the department’s new approach to federal marijuana enforcement. The memo made it clear that while pot would remain illegal under federal law, states like Colorado and Washington could legalize the drug for adults to use as long as they established “strict regulatory schemes.” Since then, the feds have largely left the states alone.
Trump has not addressed the issue of marijuana legalization at length, but he did say on the campaign trail that he believed the issue should be left to states’ discretion. This could be a point of contention between the president Sessions.
Sessions, together with newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, could immediately revoke guidelines issued by the Obama administration that require transgender students to be protected under Title IX, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in schools and colleges that receive federal funding.
Trans rights advocates cheered the policy, calling it an important incremental step toward equal protection under the law. Sessions consistently opposed pro-LGBTQ legislation as a senator, and it seems unlikely that he would direct the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to continue protecting trans rights. He will also have the authority to rescind the DOJ’s lawsuit against North Carolina, which saw a fierce political battle erupt last year over the state’s so-called “bathroom bill.”
Immigration and sanctuary cities
Sessions earned a reputation as “the most anti-immigrant senator in the chamber,” Frank Sharry, who runs the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, told Mother Jones. He did so by repeatedly blocking any attempt at comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for undocumented people. He has consistently maintained that so-called “sanctuary cities” should face federal prosecution for refusing to make local police enforce federal immigration laws.
Sessions now has the power to immediately cut off federal law enforcement grants to sanctuary cities. Also under Sessions’ purview is the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which provides funding to local jails to detain federal inmates. He could withhold that cash to sanctuary cities, as well as other types of federal funding.
He will be in charge of immigration courts, which determine who gets kicked out of the country. If he wants, Sessions can repurpose these courts to deport more people more quickly.
Police reform is an area where Sessions is expected to make changes. Lynch frequently spoke about an urgent need to heal the growing divide between law enforcement and communities of color. Sessions, meanwhile, has criticized “overreach” by the federal government into the practices of local law enforcement.
Whether the DOJ will continue to rigorously pursue investigations into reports of unconstitutional policing remains to be seen, but criminal justice reform advocates are skeptical.