No one in the Trump administration is better positioned in the coming months to upend the direction of California than Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Pick an issue, and he doesn’t agree with the majority of state residents. He thinks the Supreme Court made a “colossal” mistake in its 1973 decision affirming a woman’s right to have an abortion, though he says he would respect Roe v. Wade. As a senator, he voted repeatedly against bills to expand gay rights.
He is no fan of gun control. He wants to withhold money from “sanctuary cities” that shield illegal immigrants from federal authorities. While it remains unclear how he will ultimately act, Sessions strongly opposes legalizing marijuana, as California voters did last year. California leaders are moving to reduce penalties for nonviolent offenders. Sessions has rejected such efforts throughout his career.
“There are so many issues where it is going to be a conflict between a very conservative justice department and a liberal state,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. “I didn’t think we would see a more conservative attorney general than John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales, but Jeff Sessions is that.”
Sessions’ nomination was fought by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, and his remarks and positions have made him the scourge of the Democratic-run state Legislature, which retained his predecessor, former Attorney General Eric Holder, to fortify their positions.
Sessions’ approach represents “a complete reversal” of the Obama administration, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former assistant U.S. attorney.
“That’s the way Trump and Sessions want it to be,” Levenson said. “But California is not going silently into the night.”
Sessions, Alabama’s attorney general from 1995 to 1997, stands diametrically opposed to California leaders’ efforts to end the war on drugs they say ravaged communities of color through mass incarceration. He says consent decrees with the federal government meant to strengthen oversight of local police diminish the morale of rank-and-file officers and increase crime.
“He’s advancing a narrative that black communities are violent; also that law enforcement is losing the morale and that’s a danger to public safety,” said Mark-Anthony Johnson, director of health and wellness at Dignity and Power Now, part of the Movement for Black Lives. “That’s a very dangerous combination.”
Sessions has ordered a review of consent decrees, a type of federal agreement with local law enforcement agencies that is credited with reforming the LAPD in the aftermath of the Rampart corruption scandal. The order addressed deep-rooted accountability problems that persisted for more than a half century, and a Harvard study found that serious crime decreased substantially in Los Angeles while it was in effect.
Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney and activist, said politicians are largely unwilling to challenge departments, while most elected judges don’t want to face opposition from police chiefs and unions when they stand for reelection. It wasn’t until the LAPD was weakened by two scandals – the Rodney King riots and the corruption scandal – that the federal government took the reins of the department. Rice said she’s talked with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to ensure he can take on such cases should Sessions refuse.
“I wish I could say it was ignorance on the part of Sessions, and that it’s not malevolent,” Rice said of Sessions. “But knowing his history ... his knee-jerk, Pavlovian support of law enforcement, whether it’s right or wrong, I have to assume he doesn’t really care whether Baltimore, or Ferguson or L.A. need federal help in making policing constitutional. He’s making an ideological statement by trying to shut down all of these decrees.”
Moments after his first speech as attorney general, he shared a tense but cordial exchange with Becerra, his California counterpart.
Becerra told him that crime rates in L.A., San Francisco and his native Sacramento have fallen over the years, in part because unauthorized immigrants are cooperating with police officers without fear of retribution.
“People who are here without documents, but are not committing crimes, are beginning to fear approaching law enforcement authorities for fear that they may be also apprehended in the process of trying to be witnesses on crimes,” Becerra said at the February meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General.
Sessions acknowledged disagreements with state and local governments. Still, he called it “a shocking thing” that there isn’t universal respect between law enforcement agencies to help carry out just punishment.
“But we’ll have to wrestle with that,” Sessions told Becerra. “It’s going to be a tough challenge.”
Tensions between the Justice Department and state have intensified in recent days.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León alleged in a withering rebuke that Sessions and the Trump administration “are basing their law enforcement policies on principles of white supremacy – not American values.”
Asked to respond to de León, Sessions offered an emphatic rejoinder at a news conference on the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego.
“I totally reject that,” he said, shaking off the recurring charges of racism. “I think that is a deplorable statement.”
Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked attempts to withhold funding from sanctuary cities, handing a victory to Becerra.
A Los Angeles Democrat who spent more than two decades in Congress before his appointment as attorney general last year, Becerra cast Sessions’ threats to withhold law enforcement funds from sanctuary jurisdictions as “reckless,” drawing the attorney general back into the fray in a nationally televised interview.
Sessions replied that there’s “nothing extreme about saying if someone comes through our country unlawfully and commits a crime, another crime in the country, that they should be deported. That’s what the law says.”
But even his supporters acknowledge that justice officials and California are on a “collision course,” as Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood put it. One of several law enforcement officials leaders from the state to meet with Sessions, Youngblood said sheriffs aren’t doing the bidding of the federal government on immigration.
“What we do want to do is allow our federal law enforcement partners to do their job, whatever they decide that is, because that’s under the federal purview,” he said.
Sessions has said repeatedly that anyone in the country illegally is subject to deportation, a position that puts him to the right of Trump in a state where polls show a majority of voters support state and local action to protect the legal rights of undocumented immigrants.
Trump instructed young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children but are here illegally to “rest easy.” California, however, has been on high alert about those “dreamers,” with Becerra suggesting it’s unclear which statements he can trust.
Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly acknowledged to California’s Supreme Court chief justice that federal agents are going to courthouses to arrest illegal immigrants.
In an interview, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said while the activity is not new, it has increased to the point where “word is trickling down to the community.” “The way it was reported to me, it is intentionally overt,” she said.
Immigrants in the community fear going out to pump gas, said Joey Williams, chapter director for Faith in Kern, part of the PICO network of faith-based community organizations. “They’ll go early in the morning, and one person will wait in the car (as a lookout) and the other will go in,” he said.
California has responded by moving in the opposite direction of Sessions on immigration, with the Legislature advancing a contentious “sanctuary state” bill that bars local and state law enforcement from using their resources to assist federal immigration enforcement.
Republicans say the approach could backfire. Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, says he identified at least $117 million in federal funds that state and local governments could lose if the legislation wins Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.
He argues “dreamers” would be the biggest losers under Senate Bill 54 because federal agents would be forced to search schools and neighborhoods to find undocumented felons. California Democrats are only interested in elevating their own profiles, Anderson said.
“Why would you do that unless you are trying to pick a fight, unless you are looking for publicity?” he asked.
Becerra said the state isn’t going to give ground to Sessions: “I don't think California is looking to pick a fight, but we’re ready for one.”