Attorney General Jeff Sessions is vowing an aggressive federal investigation into the deadly violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, but as he all but promised a federal prosecution, he also broke with his long-standing position that civil rights and hate crimes cases are generally best left to local authorities.
In interviews Monday, Sessions signaled that the federal government would not hesitate to bring charges against the driver of the car that drove wildly into a crowd of protesters in the Virginia town, killing one woman and injuring more than a dozen other people.
“You can be sure that we will charge and advance the investigation towards the most serious charges that can be brought because this is an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack that cannot be accepted in America,” Sessions told ABC on Monday, before he briefed President Donald Trump on the Charlottesville investigation.
But in the past, Sessions has seemed skeptical about the federal role in such prosecutions.
At his confirmation hearing in January, he said he had opposed the 2009 Matthew Shepherd James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention law as a Republican senator from Alabama because he thought hate crimes against gays and lesbians were already policed effectively in state court. He did promise that he would enforce the law as attorney general, despite opposing it.
In February, he told reporters it was “almost disrespectful” for the federal government to prosecute excessive force by local law enforcement agencies because “sometimes local police departments really step up and do a great job.”
“This is a big concern everyone has had about Jeff Sessions as attorney general: He has a history, and he has consistently been an opponent of federal involvement in these kinds of matters,” said former Justice Department official Bill Yeomans, now with the nonprofit Alliance for Justice. “That’s been a traditional argument Southerners in particular have used about civil rights that involves going after Washington and outside agitators….I hope that the attorney general’s views have evolved. I think this will be an important test for him.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Sessions was speaking Monday about the volume of federal resources being brought to bear, not whether federal charges will ultimately be filed. “We’re just not there yet. We’re very early on,” she said.
Another DOJ official, who asked not to be named, said Sessions never opposed sharing information and resources with local officials, as the department is doing in Charlottesville.
Still, Sessions’ comments in a series of television interviews Monday omitted any discussion of distinctions between local and federal roles. Instead, the Justice Department sounded like it was coming to the aid of those injured in Charlottesville — and to the rescue of the president, whose initial reaction to the violence was widely panned as too mild.
“The president has directed us to get after it,” Sessions said on CBS. “We’re coming after these people. It will not be tolerated….There’s no bigger case right now that we’re working on.”
“We’re going to protect the right to assemble and march, and we’re going to prosecute anybody to the fullest extent of the law that violates their ability to do so,” the attorney general added on NBC. “You can be sure of that.”
Civil rights advocates said they saw a disconnect between those comments and Sessions’ long-held views.
“It is curious the inconsistency in Attorney General Sessions’ approach to these issues,” said Kristen Clark of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Sometimes he very much wants to invoke states’ rights and deferring to local and state authorities and, in the next breath, he is quick to wield the heavy hand of the federal government.”
Sessions’ vows of a strong federal response to the Charlottesville violence came amid an effort on his part to reassure civil rights activists and the members of the Justice Department’s own staff that he considers the issue a priority. In June, following complaints that the Trump administration was doing too little to respond to a surge in hate-motivated attacks, the attorney general spoke at a hate crimes summit in Washington.
“I know the responsibility that we have, and we have a responsibility to protect people’s freedom, their religious rights, their integrity, their ability to express themselves, to push back against violence and hate crimes that occur in our country,” Sessions told an audience consisting largely of federal prosecutors. “So, we’re going to do that, I will assure you, in every way.”
Even in that speech, though, Sessions was careful to distinguish between what he saw as state and federal roles. He said the Justice Department was aiding state and local investigators in probing a spate of murders of transgender people and would “determine whether federal action would be appropriate.”
In that address, the attorney general noted that his willingness to enforce hate crimes laws had come up during his confirmation hearings. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he opposed expanding federal hate crimes laws in 2009 because there was no obvious need for federal involvement. And he indicated that was still his position.
“My view is and was a concern that it appeared that these cases were being prosecuted effectively in state courts, where they would normally be expected to be prosecuted,” the then-nominee said. “The question simply was: do we have a problem that requires an expansion of federal law into an area that the federal government has not been historically involved.”
Sessions then offered an unequivocal promise to enforce the hate crimes laws currently on the books. “The law has been passed. The Congress has spoken. You can be sure I will enforce it,” he said.
Still, civil rights advocates say, enforcing such laws at the federal level always involves discretion.
“There are factors that are really important for when the federal government is going to weigh in,” said former Justice Department civil rights chief Vanita Gupta, now with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “When a crime is so heinous that it resonates at the national level, that is an instance where the Justice Department may get involved…Given the national resonance of what happened in Charlottesville, I think it would have been an abdication of the Justice Department’s responsibility not to open an investigation in this circumstance.”
Local prosecutors in Virginia have already filed charges of second-degree murder, malicious wounding and leaving the scene of an accident after death against James Alex Fields, who is accused of deliberately driving into a crowd of people who had been protesting the white supremacist gathering.
However, some civil rights activists believe if Sessions approves federal charges against Fields, it would send a powerful signal that the violence in Charlottesville was of national significance.
“A federal hate crimes charge is very difference than a local criminal offense,” Clarke said. “Hate crimes are particularly threatening to our democracy, and prosecution of this matter on the federal level would sent a strong message to the alt-right forces and the white supremacist movement afoot in our country that violence on their part will not be tolerated.”
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