Columns » Ernest Dumas

She's no Jeff Sessions

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Wouldn't it be refreshing if Arkansas had an attorney general as dedicated to the rule of law as Jeff Sessions?

Seriously.

Sessions has never been my idea of a great public servant, in whatever job he's been in — the U.S. attorney for southern Alabama, the state's attorney general, U.S. senator and, for nearly 16 hard months, attorney general of the United States. He is an unreconstructed bigot who has rarely been able to conceal it, although he did once charge two Alabama klansmen with murdering a black man.

But Sessions has seemed to take seriously the majestic calling of the nation's chief law-enforcement officer, which is to eschew politics and personal philosophy and to uphold the rule of law when politics and fundamental law clash. It has not always been so with attorneys general, notably Richard Nixon's and, for a spell in his second term, George W. Bush's. There also have been some formidable examples for Sessions — Dwight Eisenhower's Herbert Brownell and Bill Clinton's Janet Reno. Brownell insisted that a reluctant Eisenhower enforce the law of the land at Little Rock in 1957 even though doing it sorely disturbed the president and abraded a whole region of the country. Reno authorized seven special prosecutors — all but one of them ardent Republicans — to investigate her boss, the president, and the men around him. Then she embroidered on their powers to go after him.

Jeff Sessions may merit more plaudits than any of them because he has endured a steady stream of ridicule and threats from a president whom he adored and from much of his party. When Trump denounced prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Sessions assured ethics lawyers that the Justice Department would continue the prosecutions anyway. Over Trump's objections, he recused himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and then steadfastly protected the department's investigators as they got closer and closer to the president. Though he has not uttered the words, Sessions has made manifest that no man, not even his boss and friend, is above the law.

But I set out to write about our own attorney general, Leslie Rutledge. Let it be said, ruefully, that she is no Jeff Sessions, at least when it comes to the eminence of law.

Attorney general is an elective office, and men and women do seek it to advance in the political world. But in the 55 years I have known them, the Arkansas attorneys general did not use their power as the state's lawyer in chief as a political cudgel against the other party, political rivals or factions with which they held philosophical differences. Well, one exception: Bruce Bennett, the demagogue whose race-baiting and conniving in the 1950s and '60s earned him nothing more than a scad of grand-jury indictments.

Rutledge had trivial experience in the law when she was elected attorney general in 2014, which may explain the degree of her dedication. Since taking office she has filed interventions for the people of Arkansas in a variety of Republican lawsuits around the country seeking to undermine federal laws that protect the rights of women, the health of people and the waters and air of the land from carbon industries and other polluters. The interventions require no work by her office and will procure no benefits for the people of Arkansas, but she gets publicity and the thanks of some elements of industry that would like to go back to the good old days of acid rain, smog, brownfields and salt-and-mercury-choked streams.

My instant pique is with her continuing scourge of public initiatives that she opposes. Now, it's constitutional amendments that would legalize casinos around the state and recreational marijuana, which she seems determined to keep off the ballot by raising endless objections about vague wording. The sponsors can't start collecting signatures until the attorney general approves the form, ballot title and popular names of the proposals and time is running out for getting some 85,000 valid signatures. She did the same in 2016.

I have opposed proposals to legalize casinos and lotteries for 50 years, from the days when I was writing opinion for the Arkansas Gazette, and that included the two casinos authorized under Gov. Mike Huckabee. Arkansas's casino owners do not want competition and Rutledge will see to it that they do not get it. She should be cheered if she urges people to defeat the amendments, but it is an abuse of her powers to make it hard or impossible for the sponsors to get them on the ballot. Lawyers who wanted to propose strong public ethics rules by initiated act abandoned the idea because they doubted Rutledge would let it on the ballot.

James Madison's Bill of Rights and the 13th and 14th Amendments would not have stood the current AG's test. Establishment of religion? Too vague. Freedom of speech and assembly — would they apply to slaves? Equal protection of the laws — could that be applied to gays, Muslims, immigrants?

Give me Jeff Sessions.

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