Jeff Sessions Addresses Sheriffs: Media, Democrats Imply He’s a Racist for Mentioning ‘Anglo-American’ Legal Tradition

Jeff Sessions, Sheriffs
AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the National Sheriffs’ Association on combating the opioid epidemic Monday, only for the left to make headlines from his calling sheriffs “a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”

As part of his ongoing speaking tour about the raging crisis of opioid addiction that is now one of America’s leading causes of death, Sessions joined the Sheriffs’ Association’s Winter Legislative and Technology Conference at Washington, DC’s J.W. Marriott hotel. With more than 40,000 Americans succumbing to opioid overdose in 2016 alone, efforts to bring the demographic scale carnage under control are a top priority in Sessions’s Department of Justice (DOJ).

Sessions spoke to the sheriffs and other law enforcement officials for around ten minutes, focusing on his common themes of the toll of drug abuse, its links to violent crime, and the need to reinforce the rule of law to bring rising crime rates under control. In his prepared remarks, for example, he said:

But as we all know, violent crime statistics and drug overdose rates are not numbers — we’re talking about moms, dads, daughters, spouses, friends, and neighbors.

We will not stand by and watch violence and addiction rise. Plain and simple, we will not allow the progress made by our women and men in blue over the past two decades to simply slip through our fingers. We will not cede one community, one block, or one street corner to violent thugs or poison peddlers. We will protect the poor as well as the rich.

This year alone, Sessions has delivered similar addresses on the importance of the fight against opioids to the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the hard-hit Western District of Kentucky and Western District of Pennsylvania, the Middle District of Florida, the graduating class of new agents for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Defense’s U.S. Southern Command.

But instead of Sessions’ consistent message on the opioid crisis, the left-leaning media clamped onto an apparently off-the-cuff compliment he paid to the sheriff’s in the audience, referencing the rich tradition of the sheriff.

The concept of a “sheriff” dates back more than 1000 years to pre-Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon England where the “shire reeve” (the origin of the term sheriff) was a representative the King who operated with great independence to do justice at the local level. The sheriff as the enforcement wing of a local court is a unique feature of the English common law tradition from which our own legal system almost entirely derives.

Only countries like the United States, who inherit their “common law” legal systems from that of England, keep the tradition of the sheriff alive. Consequentially, outside of the United Kingdom and America, there are sheriffs in the former British Colonies of Australia, Nigeria, Canada, South Africa, and even India, where the office survives as a ceremonial position of honor.

In America, sheriffs are uniquely prominent elected officials responsible for virtually all state and local courts’ enforcement and, outside of major cities, much of the policing. Honoring these modern American inheritors of this tradition, Sessions said:

I want to thank every sheriff in America. Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process.The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. We must never erode this historic office.

The political left and their allies in the press collectively stood aghast at Sessions daring utter these words.

CNN started the ball rolling, leading with “Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday brought up sheriffs’ “Anglo-American heritage.'”

If CNN’s implication that Sessions’ use of the term “Anglo-American heritage” was newsworthy because it indicated he was a racist was unclear, the network’s political fellow-travelers in elected office and the media quickly dispelled any confusion. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), apparently unfamiliar with hearing a term like “Anglo-American heritage,” quickly called it a “dog whistle” – a term for coded racist language:

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias found the term similar unacceptable and confirming of his belief that Jeff Sessions is a racist …

… as did The Hill columnist Eugene Gu:

On the activist left, voices were even less restrained. Prominent anti-Semitic and anti-white illegal immigration advocate Linda Sarsour, for example, found the phrase “Anglo-American heritage” unequivocal enough:

Anglo-American legal heritage, of course, is a concept familiar to anyone who has attended law school. The concept is frequently referenced in legal opinions and documents. For example, even the hard-left American Civil Liberties Union began an entire section of one of their 1998 amicus briefs to the Supreme Court with “ANGLO-AMERICAN TRADITIONS, CIVILIZED PRACTICE AND THE STRUCTURE OF THE SIXTH AMENDMENT CALL…”

President Barack Obama’s own Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer used the same phrase in 2016. Even then-Senator Barack Obama did in 2006, as National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke pointed out. No major news outlet found either usage remarkable enough to warrant a headline.

The explicitly English common law origins of American legal practice is stressed throughout law school curriculum, a fact not lost on DOJ Principal Deputy Director of Public Affairs Ian Prior, himself a Boston University law graduate. In his statement to the press after the outrage over Sessions’ usage began to roil, he wrote:

As most law students learn in the first week of their first year, Anglo-American law – also known as the common law – is a shared legal heritage between England and America. The sheriff is unique to that shared legal heritage. Before reporters sloppily imply nefarious meaning behind the term, we would suggest that they read any number of the Supreme Court opinions that use the term. Or they could simply put ‘Anglo-American law’ into Google.

The outpouring of offense and outrage, genuine or feigned, did not derail Sessions’ attention to the opioid crisis. As articles and hot-takes about his supposed “dog-whistle” were stacking up, his department revealed its Fiscal Year 2019 budget request, which will ask Congress for nearly $300 million of funds specifically aimed at fighting the spread of these deadly drugs and the transnational criminal gangs that traffic in them.

“The Department of Justice has the noble task of keeping the American people safe from drugs, gangs, and terrorists, and this budget proposal reflects our commitment to do just that,” Sessions said in the press release accompanying the budget request.

“President Trump has ordered us to accomplish these goals by supporting state and local law enforcement, dismantling transnational organized crime, and working to bring down crime rates,” the attorney general explained. “For the last year, we have aggressively carried out that agenda and have already seen major successes that benefit the American people. Congress should invest in these efforts—because all of us benefit from a safer America.”


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