What an Obama DOJ Gave Us, and What a Trump DOJ Could Take Away

The prospect of an Attorney General Jeff Sessions poses particular risks to Seattle.

To say that the election of Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States has caused a flood of emotion would be an understatement. And amid the deluge of political sentiment here in Seattle, where only 8 percent of voters cast a ballot for Trump, we should make room for a newfound appreciation for President Barack Obama and his work over the past eight years. With the specifics of a Trump administration becoming more real each day, we are reminded of how much we’ve taken Obama’s progressive stewardship for granted, a luxury in which we will soon not be able to indulge. This was underscored last Thursday with the announcement that Sen. Jeff Sessions, a deeply conservative senator from Alabama, would be Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Forget everything you heard about Trump being a new kind of politician; in Sessions, Trump appears to have tapped as the country’s top law-enforcement official a man whose views on law and order are as obsolete as Richard Nixon’s reel-to-reel—ideas that should be allowed to rest in peace, not exhumed for a zombie encore. Specifically, his record on marijuana and race suggests that amid all the unique threats that Trump poses as an individual, it’s his party’s platform that may well prove to be immediately destructive next year, including in Seattle.

In the past eight years, Obama’s Department of Justice has proved a force of that very thing, justice, following the department’s checkered history of doing otherwise. Under Attorney General Eric Holder—the first black man to lead the department—the DOJ took an aggressive posture toward systemic civil-rights violations committed by police departments across the country; in Seattle, this culminated in a 2011 investigation that concluded that Seattle cops showed patterns of biased policing. While the city took issue with the conclusion, it agreed to enter into a consent decree—a settlement, in other words—that put the department on a path toward becoming a national model for unbiased policing. Of course, no one would suggest that the SPD today is perfect, nor should this brief summary of a complicated history be taken to suggest that the DOJ was flawless in its conclusions. But that a federal agency used its extensive resources to stick up and advocate for our city’s most disadvantaged encapsulates the concrete good that can be done with conscientious leadership in Washington, D.C.

So too with marijuana. Again, fault can be found with the DOJ’s reaction to the decision by Washington voters to legalize cannabis for recreational use in 2012—in particular with its subsequent crackdown on the pre-existing medical-marijuana market for its failure to comply with the precepts of I-502. And yet it should not be forgotten how unfathomable legal cannabis was just a decade ago when there was a Republican in the White House. Holder, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch after him, took a hands-off approach to cannabis that has allowed residents of every state touching the Pacific Ocean, save Hawaii, to legalize it and dismantle a central component of the War on Drugs. It would be absurd to consider the changes of the past eight years as anything short of monumental—and equally absurd to discount the Obama administration’s role in that.

Which brings us back to Jeff Sessions. On both race and pot, he is about as evolved as a trilobite. As has been widely reported, he was denied a federal courtship in the 1980s after it came to light that he called the NAACP a communistic organization and said (jokingly, according to him) that he didn’t have a problem with the KKK until he found out they smoked pot. He’s called the Voting Rights Act—designed to guard against the systematic disenfranchisement of minorities in Southern states—“intrusive.” He recently lambasted Obama’s brave and correct decision to commute the federal sentences of 214 nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were minorities, as a “dangerous game”—a clear example of his views on both minority policing and drug sentencing (an issue explored further in this week’s cover story).

When Mayor Ed Murray, upon learning of Sessions’ appointment last week, reiterated the city’s commitment to the tenets of the consent decree over biased policing, we were heartened that the good work the city has done since 2011 would not get rolled back on account of the watchmen going on break. Marijuana’s future is less clear. Trump himself has sounded fairly enlightened, if vague, on the topic in the past, but Sessions’ severe rhetoric on the issue has left many in the business discomforted.

The sad truth is that much of the good work of the Obama DOJ—work that made Seattle a better place—could quickly be wiped out as policies and priorities shift. That is the prerogative of Trump and his appointments, and a stark reality of his pending presidency. But in the spirit of not knowing what we’ve got until it’s gone, it would behoove us all to appreciate the good that Obama has brought while he’s still here.


CLARIFICATION An earlier version of this editorial stated that the Department of Justice found the Seattle Police Department guilty of biased policing. That isn’t exactly true. The investigation found that SPD showed “patterns of bias.” The story has been adjusted.