Controversy over President Trump’s first 100 days is raging, with many analysts maintaining that the president has achieved almost nothing of substance.
But at least on one front, it would be wrong to say the president’s impact has been negligible. With his appointments of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump has made serious inroads toward transforming the justice system – sadly, in a way that signals a rapid erosion of the rights of Americans.
Under Sessions, one of the Justice Department’s first, egregiously cruel actions was to roll back protections allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. It came after Sessions reportedly squared off with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and won. The move rescinded a civil rights expansion from the Obama administration; more than that, it served as an early warning of the direction Sessions’ DOJ intended to take.
Now, Sessions reportedly wants to revive a draconian – and widely discredited –strategy from several decades ago at the height of the war on drugs, with harsher prosecution of drug cases and use of mandatory minimum prison sentences. Such action would reverse practices of the Obama Justice Department against seeking across-the-board sentences for some low-level drug offenders. In the past, the systematic sentencing of such offenders led to a recognized crisis of mass incarceration, a booming prison population heavily made up of black men, with attendant destruction of African-American families and communities.
At the same time, Sessions’ Justice Department has signaled the federal government may no longer seek to apply the brakes to voting discrimination. It dropped a legal argument raised by the Obama administration that Texas had enacted a strict voter-identification law with discriminatory intent.
Despite the Justice Department’s turnabout, District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos recently declared that the Texas law “was passed, at least in part, with a discriminatory purpose.” The issue of intent is important in determining whether Texas will be required to get Justice Department approval before revising its election laws.
Equally concerning, Sessions has ordered a comprehensive review of existing or possible consent decrees to bring reform to local police departments, raising fears of diminished police accountability. This comes despite documented reports of unconstitutional race discrimination patterns, and excessive police force, in some major cities.
And Sessions apparently shares with his boss, Donald Trump, a willingness to belittle the federal judiciary. When a judge in Hawaii blocked Trump’s flawed ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, Sessions voiced amazement “that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”
Meanwhile, the newly-minted Justice Gorsuch has already moved the Supreme Court rightward, telegraphing with his first vote that he will be a reliable member of its ultraconservative wing.
Gorsuch effectively cast the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision permitting executions of Arkansas death row inmates to go forward beginning with Ledell Lee. A big factor was the anticipated expiration of the state’s supply of lethal-injection drugs. The Roberts Court, its conservative majority now completed by Gorsuch, bought that suspect rationale.
“In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer objected in dissent. The court’s vote cleared the way for Arkansas’ first execution in a decade; this week, the nation’s first back-to-back, double execution since 2000 followed in the same state.
There is a pattern here, and it is not one of inertia. Trump has set in motion a rollback of decades of human rights progress, and the consequences for some of our society’s most vulnerable will be felt for generations. Certainly the president has flailed without effect on the legislative front. But the shift in the orientation of our apparatus of justice is real, it is happening now, and we ignore it our peril.
No real action in the first 100 days? Think again.