Is Jeff Sessions intervening in a transgender hate crime case as a publicity stunt?

Jeff Sessions hate crimes

Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses a federal prosecutors gathered for a Justice Department hate crimes summit in Washington, D.C. YouTube Screenshot

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sent a federal hate crimes lawyer to Iowa to assist in the prosecution of a man charged with murdering a transgender teenager last year.

It is being described as an uncharacteristic move coming from an administration that has been openly hostile to LGBTQ rights, including the Justice Department under Sessions’ leadership. Some are going further, calling it a stunt.

The victim in the case, who went by both Kedarie Johnson and Kandicee Johnson, was shot and killed. Friends and family say Johnson was gay and identified as both male and female, The New York Times reports.

Iowa police were quick to say the case was not a hate crime under Iowa law in their opinion. Hate crime law in Iowa pertains to the categories of a “person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability, or the person’s association with a person of a certain race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability.” (Bolding ours.)

The Justice Department’s mixed record under Sessions

Under Sessions, the Justice Department has argued that employers should be able to fire people for being gay, as well for being transgender. It has also rolled back protections for transgender students, and is giving cover to those who wish to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, so long as they use their religious beliefs as the stated reason.

Sessions has also backed off the concept of federal oversight of police departments accused of abuse of power.

So many were surprised when Sessions applauded the first use of hate crime laws to prosecute the murder of a transgender individual, Mercedes Williamson. Sessions voted against hate crime protections as a senator, calling them overly broad and unnecessary.

Sessions followed up the praise of hate crime law to persecute the man who murdered Williamson with a speech at a hate crimes summit, where he promised to continue to enforce hate crime laws.

Advocates say Sessions is deflecting and is still doing real harm to minority communities

Lambda Legal has come out with a statement criticizing Sessions’ latest effort to at least appear on the side of the transgender community when it comes to hate crimes.

“[I]t is the height of cynicism for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use this – frankly rare – instance of civil rights enforcement under his tenure to deflect from the current department’s sustained opposition to its historic mission,” it reads.

“No one in the Trump administration has done more to harm LGBT people, and especially transgender people, than Jeff Sessions – and in a government chock full of anti-LGBT appointees, that is saying a lot,” it continues.

“For Sessions now to seek credit for helping prosecute hate crimes against transgender people is akin to him handing out gasoline and matches and then looking for a pat on the back when he prosecutes someone for committing arson,” it adds.

We hope that the Senators questioning Sessions at Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the Judiciary Committee are not distracted by this publicity stunt designed for their benefit and instead hold him accountable for the Department of Justice’s appalling failure to do its job under his direction.

Sessions also drew criticism from LGBTQ rights advocates in his previous actions that appeared to be a move toward the middle on the issue.

“It is somewhat reassuring that while Attorney General Sessions has apparently no problem with transgender people being fired, or bullied in school, or kicked out of public places because of who they are, he has apparently come around to believing that transgender people should not be murdered in the streets,” National Center for Transgender Equality Program Director Harper Jean Tobin told LGBTQ Nation at the time of Sessions’ comments regarding the Williamson case.

Clarke called Sessions’ move a “cynical ploy to deflect attention from his opposition to basic civil rights with his relentless, racially-tinged drive to promote mass incarceration.”

“[Sessions] failed to address the fact that more than 100 federal law enforcement agencies are not providing hate crimes data to the FBI,” noted Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, after his speech at the hate crimes summit in Washington, D.C. “Moreover, the Administration’s executive orders and policies toward African Americans, Latinos, and other communities of color, Muslims, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, and refugees have undermined the trust that is necessary for communities and victims to freely report hate crimes to law enforcement.”

A message to the senators

Lambda Legal ends its statement regarding the Johnson case with a call to action:

“We hope that the Senators questioning Sessions at Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the Judiciary Committee are not distracted by this publicity stunt designed for their benefit and instead hold him accountable for the Department of Justice’s appalling failure to do its job under his direction.”

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