Wall Street Journal
By Beth Reinhard
June 29, 2017
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday made an overture to some of his most fervid critics by inviting dozens of civil rights leaders to a hate-crimes summit and emphasizing his support for prosecuting anti-transgender and anti-Muslim crime.
As a U.S. senator from Alabama, Mr. Sessions voted against a 2009 hate-crime law that expanded protections to people targeted for their gender identity or sexual orientation. Earlier this year, the attorney general backed withdrawing federal guidance saying transgender students should be able to use public school bathrooms matching their gender identity. Mr. Sessions said the guidance wasn’t supported by law; civil-liberties groups called the decision a major setback.
But at Thursday’s hate-crimes summit, Mr. Sessions set aside his usual focus on law and order to talk about protecting individual rights. He cited approvingly a case against a Mississippi man who last month was sentenced to 49 years in prison for murdering a transgender woman. Begun under the Obama administration, it was the first case prosecuted under the 2009 law involving gender identity.
Mr. Sessions also said he had personally met with staffers to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of other transgender murders.
“We have, and will continue to, enforce hate-crime law aggressively and appropriately where transgender individuals are victims,” Mr. Sessions told the gathering.
“No person should have to fear being attacked because of who they are, what they believe, or how they worship” he also said.
The summit is part of the Trump administration’s complicated balancing act on civil liberties and public safety issues as it juggles demands from various ideological camps within and outside the White House. Shortly after addressing the civil-rights gathering, Mr. Sessions met with families of victims killed by illegal immigrants—the latest in a series of controversial moves by the administration to link illegal immigration with violent crime.
The summit also occurred on the first day of the administration’s travel restrictions on visitors from six Muslim-majority countries after the Supreme Court let a modified version of President Trump’s travel ban take effect.
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a civil-rights group invited to participate in the summit, called Mr. Sessions record “deplorable” shortly before the gathering began.
“We urge the attorney general and the Trump administration to stop enacting discriminatory policies, to stop engaging in anti-Muslim rhetoric that gives license to extremists to commit violent acts, and to speak up and condemn hate when it rears its ugly head,” she said.
In 2009, Mr. Sessions said he opposed the hate-crimes legislation because it “creates a new system of justice for individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, providing them with a special protection, while excluding vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly or police officers or soldiers, from such special protections.”
But since his nomination to be the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, Mr. Sessions has spoken more positively about regulating bias-motivated crime.
When pressed about the 2009 vote during his confirmation hearing in January, Mr. Sessions said he disagreed with the law because state prosecutors were effectively handling hate crime. But he added, “The law has been passed, the Congress has spoken—you can be sure I will enforce it.”
The Justice Department hosted a reception on Wednesday that marked June as gay pride month. Before that event, Mr. Sessions was asked about it by an intern during a staff meeting, and the intern posted the attorney general’s response online: “That’s perfectly appropriate, and we will protect and defend and celebrate that—and protect the rights of all transgender persons.”
That Wednesday reception honored Gavin Grimm, the transgender high-school student whose lawsuit over using the boys’ bathroom was rebuffed by the Supreme Court after the administration rescinded its guidance on the issue.
Mr. Sessions “has personally demonstrated respect for the rule of law and offered an olive branch to the LGBT community,” said Tyler Branch, senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for gay rights. “I’m still very disappointed with how he rolled back the guidance regarding transgender students.”
Mr. Sessions also has faced criticism from civil-rights leaders for a budget plan that cuts 17% of the jobs in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, which prosecutes hate crime. Most of the 121 civil-rights jobs that would be eliminated have been vacant for a few years, according to the department.
“Fighting hate crimes demands more than words,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.), the first openly gay senator when she was elected in 2012. “We need real action.”
The hate-crimes summit coincided with the release of a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in which U.S. residents described an average of 250,000 hate crimes a year from 2004 to 2015.
However, less than half of these incidents were reported to police. The survey describes an increasingly narrow funnel from the public’s experience of hate crime to the federal government’s record-keeping, with 6% of the incidents in the survey confirmed as hate crimes by police and 3% reported to the FBI.
The latest FBI statistics in 2015 showed hate crime was up 7% from the previous year, a rise driven partly by a 67% surge in anti-Muslim incidents.
Also Thursday, the White House nominated Eric Dreiband to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, which is in charge of prosecuting federal hate crimes and violations of other civil liberties and election laws. Mr. Dreiband has filed discrimination lawsuits as the top lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and has also defended big businesses from such lawsuits as an attorney at the Jones Day law firm.
The reaction from civil-rights groups to his nomination varied from outright opposition to calls for tough Senate scrutiny of his record and views on policing and voting rights.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com