Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday praised the nation’s sheriffs — then referenced the “Anglo-American heritage” of law enforcement.
“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,” Sessions told members of the National Sheriffs’ Association during their winter conference in Washington.
He added: “The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”
Organizations such as the NAACP deemed Sessions’s language his latest act of racism. Lawyers, however, have been quick to point to the term’s regular appearance in case law, saying that “Anglo-American law” — also known as common law — is a widely used term in the legal system that refers to the shared legal roots of England and the United States.
Sessions’s use of the term appears to have been impromptu, as it does not appear in his prepared remarks, which imply that he was supposed to say, “The sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage.”
To those unfamiliar with the term’s legal context, “Anglo-American heritage” sounded offensive, especially considering the accusations of racism that have nearly derailed Sessions’s career. A Senate committee in 1986, for instance, denied Sessions a federal judgeship, as his former colleagues testified that Sessions used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana,” according to The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips.
In response to Sessions’s remarks Monday, Splinter’s Emma Roller wrote that the attorney general “let his racism peek through a little more than he may have intended to.” And actress Alyssa Milano tweeted he should be “fired immediately.”
The NAACP in a statement said Sessions’s “latest racially-tinged comments” should give “all people reason to worry.”
“His decision to link the term Sheriff to some part ‘of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement,’ is an unfortunate yet consistent aspect of the language coming out of the Department of Justice under his tenure and in the opinion of the NAACP, qualifies as the latest example of dog whistle politics,” NAACP officials said.
The NAACP has previously criticized Sessions’s rollback of Obama-administration policies on civil rights issues — including criminal justice, policing and voting rights — believing the move to be racially charged.
In discussing sheriffs’ “Anglo-American heritage,” Sessions might have been invoking the origins of the office of the sheriff, first established in Anglo-Saxon England.
As University of Denver law professor David Kopel wrote in The Post in 2014:
The word “Sheriff” is a combination of the Anglo-Saxon words for “shire” (what we today call a “county”) and “reeve” (meaning “guardian”). The county guardians of Anglo-Saxon England were responsible for organizing communal defense. Often, they led the shire’s militia, as part of King Alfred’s reorganization of national defense which finally protected the nation from Danish invaders and marauders.
By the time that the American Colonies were being settled, the Office of Sheriff was declining in England, but the move across the Atlantic brought new energy and importance to the Office. The Americans restored what they considered to be the ancient Anglo-Saxon practice of popular election of Sheriffs. The Americans also strongly reaffirmed the traditional common law understanding of the Sheriff’s powers and authorities, especially the Sheriff’s autonomy and independence.
References to the Anglo-American law system are also common in case law. A variation of the term has been used in several written decisions by both liberal and conservative judges: Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer in a concurring opinion on a 2008 Guantanamo Bay detainment case, for example, noted “a basic fact of Anglo-American constitutional history” regarding habeas corpus jurisdiction. And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy cited the country’s “Anglo-American legal tradition” in a 2011 case about constitutional freedom of petition.
The term was used during former president Barack Obama’s administration, too, by Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Bill Baer in a 2016 speech in Beijing. During his remarks, he referenced Justice Kennedy’s 1999 visit to Beijing:
There, [Kennedy] described 1000 years of evolution of rule of law and of the Anglo-American common law system. He also discussed how our judges and the private bar are all essential actors in rule of law, just as our Constitution, body of laws, and judicial precedents guide the implementation of rule of law in the United States.
Ian Prior, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said in a statement that variations of the term “Anglo-American heritage” are often used by lawyers and legal scholars, and that “most law students learn [the term] in the first week of their first year.”
“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,” Prior said.