Meet the UA law professor who joined 1,423 colleagues opposing Jeff Sessions

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Nobody is surprised that more than 1,400 law professors from across the nation signed a letter opposing Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. I’d frankly be more shocked if even one of the signatories voted for President-elect Donald Trump.

But I didn’t expect to see a professor from the University of Alabama School of Law on the list. I was even less prepared to find that he shares plenty of common ground with conservatives.

To be clear, I don’t believe for a minute that John Gross is the only professor at UA law who personally opposes Sessions’ nomination. He just happens to be the only one willing to sign such a public letter.

The letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee chair and ranking member is written in a disjunctive manner to attract the signatures of faculty who might not share all the concerns mentioned. As such, it’s impossible to tell which signatory has which objection:

Some of us have concerns about his misguided prosecution of three civil rights activists for voter fraud in Alabama in 1985, and his consistent promotion of the myth of voter-impersonation fraud. Some of us have concerns about his support for building a wall along our country’s southern border. Some of us have concerns about his robust support for regressive drug policies that have fueled mass incarceration. Some of us have concerns about his questioning of the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. Some of us have concerns about his repeated opposition to legislative efforts to promote the rights of women and members of the LGBTQ community. Some of us share all of these concerns.

The very nature of the letter highlights the liberal inclinations of the law professors who signed it. The assorted concerns read right out of the Democratic script and clearly assume that the attorney general’s office is a policy-making position. President Barack Obama’s attorneys general operated in that manner, so it’s understandable why so many law professors might expect it to continue.

As a former attorney for Sessions and an alumnus of Alabama law, I reached out to Gross to see which of the concerns drove him to sign the letter.

“I don’t care what happened 30 years ago,” he said a few minutes into our conversation. “I don’t think that’s a good reason to say we’re not going to confirm him.” He wasn’t dismissing the allegations of racism leveled against Sessions. He simply believed those were litigated in the 1986 hearing and that many of his academic colleagues and members of the media are recycling the same information hoping it might stick. Gross even conceded that Sessions’s professional experience qualified him for the position.

For a moment, I thought I must have called the wrong professor. If he wasn’t attempting to re-litigate prior allegations against Sessions and wasn’t questioning his competency, why sign the letter?

“Sessions has been very consistent in terms of his policy positions,” said Gross. “He’s a throwback to the Reagan-era ‘tough on crime’, ‘just say no’ type of policies.” According to Gross, we’ve tried those approaches, and they don’t work as advertised.

Gross didn’t point to some liberal academic scholar to support his perspectives. Instead, he mentioned Gov. Rick Perry’s reforms that moved Texas from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime.” He also pointed to the Right on Crime initiative where numerous conservative icons like Grover Norquist, former Attorney General Ed Meese, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and even Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael, support a broad platform of serious criminal justice policy changes.

Gross believes Sessions should answer questions about his past policy positions that appear inconsistent with recent bipartisan reform efforts.

He also raised concerns about Sessions’s priorities as attorney general in a way that struck me as novel. “The federal criminal code is massive,” said Gross, “to the point where nobody can tell you how many federal crimes there really are.” Because of federal overcriminalization, Gross believes that any attorney general is forced to heavily prioritize. With so many options for prosecution available, he fears that Sessions might move towards criminal enforcement priorities that will increase already high levels of incarceration.

Along with concerns about policies and priorities, Gross questions how the incoming president’s first major political ally could effectively serve as a watchdog of the Trump administration. Gross claimed that Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s meeting with former President Bill Clinton and FBI Director James Comey’s comments during the campaign had rendered the Department of Justice far too political for such a critical federal agency. Gross would prefer a nomination that moves the department away from politics.

At the same time, Gross sees this week’s confirmation hearings quite differently than many of his colleagues.

“I expect him to be confirmed,” he said. “I hope the hearings are more about the Jeff Sessions as attorney general than the Jeff Sessions of 30 years ago.” When I asked Gross whether he could support Sessions if he simply hopes to enforce federal law, Gross expressed optimism but stopped short of changing his mind.

“If Sessions is able to present himself as somebody able to see the complexities of criminal justice–the need for incarceration and rehabilitation, enforcement and compassion–I’d feel a lot better with him taking the reins.”

While Gross may not be able to endorse Sessions, he raises fair questions that the Alabama senator is perfectly capable of answering. He also suggests a trajectory for confirmation that’s far more useful to the American people than a 30-year-old recycled witch-hunt.

Maybe that’s why Gross’s opposition to Sessions’ nomination seems importantly different than the mainstream media narrative desperately trying to cast Sessions as a racist. It’s strange to compliment someone on being the right kind of opposition, but that’s precisely my thought about Gross after our conversation.

We may not share the same perspectives on Sessions or even the role of the attorney general, but we both agree that the confirmation process needs to be far more substantive than salacious.


Image by Brad McPherson

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