Law professors opposing Sessions' AG nomination see trouble ahead for rights, environment
'Public opposition can sometimes create political cover for those individuals to follow their own instincts and break party ranks.'
A handful of Oregon law professors who added their names to a national campaign blasting the attorney general nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions say they're hopeful the effort could raise questions about Sessions' suitability for the job, but they don't think it will stop him from taking office.
More than two dozen professors from Lewis & Clark Law School and the University of Oregon Law School were among the nearly 1,500 people who signed a statement objecting to Sessions' nomination. Their signatures are part of full-page ads published Monday, Jan. 9, in newspapers across the nation, including in California and Iowa, home states of Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Diane Feinstein, heads of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will discuss Sessions' nomination Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 10 and 11. Grassley is committee chairman. Feinstein is the ranking member.
Carrie Leonetti, a University of Oregon associate professor of constitutional law and faculty leader of the school's Criminal Justice Initiative, said most of the people who signed the letter didn't think the Republican Senate "is going to lose a lot of sleep over the fact that law professors are opposed to Trump's nominee." Public opposition could help, however.
"It is possible that there are already senators who have their own concerns about Sessions' fitness to serve as attorney general," Leonetti said. "In that case, public opposition can sometimes create political cover for those individuals to follow their own instincts and break party ranks."
Juliet Stumpf, the Robert E. Jones Professor of Advocacy and Ethics at Lewis & Clark Law School, said the letter "has already been effective" by getting nearly 1,500 people to publicly oppose a federal nominee. "As a teacher and scholar of laws that the attorney general swears to uphold — civil rights and immigration law — I signed the letter in the hope that the public and the decision makers will carefully consider our assessment of Sen. Sessions' capabilities," Stumpf said.
World-class legal mind
Sessions is one of the most controversial nominees submitted by President-elect Donald J. Trump, mostly because of his record on civil rights. Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, has rankled civil rights advocates with his views on the Voting Rights Act, voter fraud, immigration and protection for nontraditional lifestyles.
They also point to hearings in 1986, when Sessions for nominated to be a federal judge, saying his views were too controversial even then for the Senate to confirm.
Supporters say Sessions has a good record of dealing with tough issues on voter fraud and immigration, areas where he would have a great deal of influence. A website, ConfirmSessions, was set up in mid-December by the conservative Judicial Crisis Network to praise Sessions for his "world-class legal mind," and his "deep respect for the Constitution and adherence to the rule of law."
The signature campaign was organized by John D. King of Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia, and Robin Walker Sterling of the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. They set up a GoFundMe page to raise $16,000 for newspaper ads targeting senators around the nation. The campaign, which on Monday still had 23 days to go, raised more than $17,000. Any additional funds will be donated to the NAACP Legal Defense fund, King and Sterling wrote.
The campaign calls on senators to reject Sessions' nomination. Professors who signed the campaign letter were from 180 law schools in 49 states. The handful of professors who signed the letter represent a small portion of the factulities at the Lewis & Clark Law School and the University of Oregon Law School.
"As law faculty who work every day to better understand the law and teach it to our students, we are convinced that Jeff Sessions will not fairly enforce our nation's laws and promote justice and equality in the United States," King and Sterling wrote. "We urge you to reject his nomination."
'Fear of losing ground'
Beyond Sessions' approval by the Senate, many of the Northwest professors who signed the petition say they fear an expected Trump administration roll-back of hard-fought legal victories on tough issues like lesbian/gay rights, same-sex marriage, environmental justice and criminal justice reforms.
"This country has prided itself on following the rule of law rather than the rule of men," Stumpf said. "My greatest fear is of losing ground on the national project that we have been embarked on since the Civil Rights Era of creating an inclusive, equality-based national community, buoyed by our laws, where everyone has a seat at the table."
"One major concern or fear is that our country's laws promoting justice and equality will not be enforced and/or that they will be rolled backwards," said Aliza B. Kaplan, director of the Lewis & Clark Law School's Criminal Justice Reform Clinic.
Susan T. Felstiner, Lewis & Clark Law School clinical professor, said she worried that Trump's campaign rhetoric, and Sessions' nomination could "continue to embolden the narrow-minded to cause physical or emotional harm to members of our communities based on the members' race, ethnicity, gender, sex or religion."
Daniel J. Rohlf, Lewis & Clark Law School professor and Of Counsel to the Earthrise Law Center, said he worried that environmental issues would be shoved aside by the Trump administration. "Sen. Sessions has advocated measures that would restrict citizen lawsuits to enforce environmental laws, which has been a key means of protecting the environment in this country for decades," Rohlf said.
Leonetti said even though Sessions' past record might be discounted by his supporters, it should be part of the hearings because "the sum of what is known of Sessions suggests to me that the (Department of Justice) part of 'making America great again' would not be great for a lot of people who have come to enjoy having enforceable civil rights over the past decade."
Do any of the law professors fear repercussions for signing the letter? No — with reservations.
"I expect that open-minded and rational readers will receive the letter in the spirit in which it is intended: as a statement of strong concern that deserves careful consideration, not repercussions," Stumpf said.
Leonetti isn't expecting a federal Department of Justice job any time soon. "I am guessing that I won't be on a short list for an assistant attorney general job if Sessions is confirmed," she said. "But I can't imagine myself being on any Trump administration list anyway, so that doesn't seem like much of a risk."