Policy

Porn, Weed and Other Takeaways From Sessions Hearing

AG hopeful could flip DOJ positions on obscenity and online gambling.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his nomination for attorney general on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Jeff Sessions revealed several policy changes he might bring to the Justice Department during his confirmation hearing this week to be attorney general in the Trump administration.

The main focus was the Alabama Republican defending his record from criticism by Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups, who question his independence and whether he will enforce voting rights and other laws important to minorities and women. But moments that didn’t grab headlines give new insight into Sessions’ legal thinking on some issues and what he’ll do if he is confirmed.

Cut fat in grants

Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would make it a priority to scrutinize the Justice Department’s awarding of grants to avoid duplication and waste.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona brought up the topic, telling Sessions that he wants to continue working on rooting out what government watchdog agencies considered “duplication and waste, sometimes fraud and abuse.”

Session responded, “I will make it a priority of mine to make sure that the dollars that we have are actually getting to the purposes they’re supposed to go for.”

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I did a great thing. I got more money for this good purpose.’ But did it really efficiently and effectively go there? Did it really make a positive difference?” Sessions said. “So I think the Department of Justice can utilize those grant programs to help valuable activities and it needs to guard against improper activities.”

Curb vices

Gamblers and pornography users, take note: Sessions told the committee he would consider flipping DOJ positions on obscenity and online gambling.

Utah GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch asked Sessions whether he would consider re-establishing a specific unit to prosecute federal obscenity laws, called the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, and make those cases a priority.

“So that unit has been disbanded, I’m not sure I knew that. But it was a part of the Department of Justice for a long time and I would consider that,” Sessions responded.

In 2011, Hatch was among 42 senators who wrote a letter urging Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to file these types of cases. In 2010, Hatch said at a committee hearing that there was “a pattern at the Department of Justice to prosecute only the most extreme obscene materials” and “moving the prosecution line out to the fringe signals that material that is just as obscene though less extreme is let off the hook,” Politico reported at the time. Sessions did not sign that letter.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Sessions about the Justice Department’s 2011 interpretation of a 1961 law known as the Wire Act “to allow online video poker or poker gambling.” Sessions responded that he would revisit that memorandum but he needed to study the issue.

“I was shocked at the memorandum, … the enforcement memorandum that the Department of Justice issued with regard to the Wire Act and criticized it,” Sessions said. “Apparently, there is some justification or argument that can be made to support the Department of Justice’s position, but I did oppose it when it happened.”

Enforce pot laws

Sessions passed on an opportunity to say he would vigorously enforce federal drug laws when it comes to states that have legalized marijuana, advocates noted after the hearing.

“I know it won’t be an easy decision, but I will try to do my duty in a fair and just way,” he said.

Sessions has a history of being tough on drug crimes, and Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont highlighted that Sessions once advocated “the death penalty for anyone convicted of a second drug trafficking offense, including marijuana.”

There’s an uneasy status quo between state laws that legalize marijuana and the federal laws against possession and distribution, thanks to Justice Department guidelines established during the Obama administration.

“Well, I think one obvious concern is that the United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state, and distribution of it, an illegal act,” Sessions said in response to a question from Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee.

“If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change — change the rule,” Sessions said. “It’s not so much the attorney general’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we’re able.”

When Leahy asked him about current DOJ guidelines on states with legalized marijuana and whether he would prosecute medical marijuana users, Sessions said that “absolutely, it’s a problem of resources for the federal government.”

The National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith said those statements from Sessions, “along with support for state sovereignty on cannabis policy expressed by President-elect Trump and his team, should lead Sen. Sessions to maintain the current federal policy of respect for state-legal, regulated cannabis programs if he is confirmed as attorney general.”

Restore border program

Sessions, known for his tough stance on immigration, told the committee he would restore and even refine a “zero tolerance” policy, dubbed Operation Streamline, to quickly prosecute people who illegally enter the country via the nation’s southern border.

Flake asked Sessions about the curtailing of a program that the Arizona Republican said was “credited with being instrumental in achieving better border security, specifically in the Yuma sector, along the western side of Arizona’s border with Mexico.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona adopted a policy that ended prosecutions of people who cross illegally but otherwise don’t have a criminal history, Flake said. “I haven’t gotten a straight answer” from the Justice Department.

“Like you, I believe that Streamline was very effective,” said Sessions, as he expressed surprise that the program has “been undermined and significantly.”

“The reports I got initially, some years ago, maybe a decade or more ago, was that it was dramatically effective,” Sessions said. “And so I would absolutely review that and my inclination would be, at least at this stage, to think it should be restored and even refined and made sure it’s lawful and effective. But I think it has great positive potential to improve legality at the border.”

Sessions added that “it seems to me that we should examine the successes and see if they can’t be replicated throughout the border.”

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