Shortly before he was compelled to resign as attorney general by President Trump, one of Jeff Sessions‘ final acts was to sign an order limiting the Justice Department’s ability to use consent decrees.
According to a New York Times report, the order signed by Sessions on Wednesday, would require top political appointees to sign off on the deals instead of career lawyers. This order is similar to one currently pending in Chicago, and is meant to address the behavior of local police departments accused of systemic civil rights abuses.
The Justice Department, under former President Barack Obama, aggressively pursued consent decrees, but Sessions has criticized them as a handicap on local law enforcement.
“The document reflected Mr. Sessions’s staunch support for law enforcement and his belief that overzealous civil rights lawyers under the Obama administration vilified the local police,” the New York Times piece read.
But a Chicago Sun Times report clarifies that, “Sessions’ order does not appear to threaten the consent decree soon expected to be finalized for the Chicago Police Department, which was negotiated by the city and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office”
Chicago’s consent decree is specifically a settlement negotiated between the city and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. It is meant to address the pattern of civil rights abuses by the CPD after the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke sparked a Justice Department probe.
Also, note that the Sessions memo on consent decrees (https://t.co/9iPJaQHZS6) isn’t limited to police misconduct cases, as the NYT article might suggest. It applies to any consent decree with a state or local government. Could be about race, sex, or disability discrimination.
— Sam Bagenstos (@sbagen) November 9, 2018
These deals have always been a tool that the Justice Department has used to help change policing practices nationwide. After the killings of black men at the hands of the police set off the Black Lives Matter movement, the Obama administration entered into 14 of these agreements in an effort to improve relationships between the police and their communities.
However, Sessions’ new guidelines would place more of a burden onto state attorneys general and other local agencies attempting to make these deals.
“This memo will make the Justice Department much less effective in enforcing civil rights laws,” said Jonathan M. Smith, a former official in the department’s civil rights division and the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Sessions has previously stated that he believes any agreements made should ensure that the police are safe and respected and as a result has dropped several Obama-era investigations looking into police corruption in Chicago and Louisiana.
The idea that unconstitutional conduct by a state or local entity is no longer sufficient basis to enter into a consent decree is extraordinary. Instead Sessions mandates that the following conditions must be present: pic.twitter.com/CBDlw8AhWB
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) November 9, 2018