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Opinion Jeff Sessions deserves to be the next U.S. attorney general

Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) cheers on the crowd during a rally. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Larry Thompson was deputy U.S. attorney general from 2001 to 2003.

One of my favorite descriptions of public service was set forth by former president Theodore Roosevelt, who praised the person who is actually in the "arena" and, while suffering the slings and arrows of criticism, continues to strive "valiantly" to serve the public's interests. It is my experience that there can be no public service without public criticism, but such criticism should always be dispassionate and not misleading.

It is in this vein that I believe the Senate should quickly move to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as U.S. attorney general. In doing so, it should objectively look at Sessions's clear record of achievement in the areas of strong law enforcement and legislative bipartisanship.

And, the Senate should reject the cheap-shot accusations that attempt to brand the senator as racially insensitive or, worse, a racist. Among his many accomplishments as a federal prosecutor and senator, there are two that clearly define Sessions as a leader with a commitment to strong law enforcement and equal justice.

As a U.S. attorney, Sessions successfully prosecuted Alabama Ku Klux Klan "Grand Titan" Bennie Jack Hays, who ordered his son, Henry Hays, to kill an African American man. Henry Hays and James "Tiger" Knowles did the cowardly deed by abducting a 19-year-old and torturing and then murdering him.

As is common in cases like this with serious civil rights overtones, the investigation was a joint federal-state effort. The state district attorney noted that the investigative power of the FBI and a federal grand jury were needed. He also noted that when he reached to him for help, Sessions responded, "Tell me what you'll need and you'll have it."

Knowles pleaded guilty in federal court to a civil rights violation and received a life sentence to be served in federal prison. Sessions, however, pressed to ensure that Hays was tried in state court, where prosecutors could seek the death penalty. Hays was found guilty and received the death sentence. As Alabama attorney general, Sessions successfully argued to uphold Hays’s sentence.

Sessions also has a record of bipartisan leadership in the Senate, especially on criminal justice issues. His leadership was instrumental in the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. This landmark legislation reduced the penalties for crack cocaine possession, which unfairly targeted African Americans, and brought the penalties more in line with those for powder cocaine.

The career of Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, has been shadowed by his prosecution of the "Marion Three." (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post, Photo: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

This was a tremendous accomplishment inasmuch as Sessions first introduced the legislation in 2001 to reduce this unjust disparity and noted, "I think we are at a point now where this 100-to-1 disparity that does fall heavier on the African-American community simply because that is where crack is most often used has got to be fixed." Sessions worked to reduce this disparity for nine years before he was joined by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) in a successful bipartisan effort to enact the legislation. Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, praised Sessions in 2010 for his "steadfast commitment" to ending this "racially discriminatory disparity."

That Sessions can view law enforcement and Justice Department issues through a bipartisan lens was further demonstrated when he was one of only 19 Republican senators to vote to confirm Eric Holder, President Obama's first attorney general.

These remarkable accomplishments demonstrate that Sessions’s deep experience as a federal prosecutor and senator will bring much-needed, strong leadership to the Justice Department.

The Post's Ellen Nakashima and Sari Horwitz recently reported a moving speech Sessions made at the ceremony awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the "foot soldiers" who took part in the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., which very much illustrates the senator's commitment to equality. He praised the foot soldiers and noted, "More needs to be done. We need to join closer hands."

So, despite criticism of some of the senator’s public policy and political positions, the nation and the Justice Department have benefited from Sessions’s leadership and time in the “arena.” While being battered at times, he has worked hard and has clearly advanced the public good. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a good man, deserves confirmation as our nation’s next attorney general.

Read more on this issue:

J. Gerald Hebert, Joseph D. Rich and William Yeomans: Jeff Sessions says he handled these civil rights cases. He barely touched them.

George F. Will: The very bad reason Jeff Sessions is ‘very unhappy’

Colbert I. King: Jeff Sessions’s actions alone are disqualifying

Steven Hale: The nightmare of Jeff Sessions as attorney general

The Post’s View: What Jeff Sessions has to prove