Why Did Jeff Sessions Invoke ‘Anglo-American Heritage’ In A Speech To Sheriffs?

CNN reported that on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was speaking to law enforcement officials in Washington when he brought up the “Anglo-American heritage” of sheriffs.

“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,” Sessions continued.


Sessions was speaking at the National Sheriffs Association winter meeting.

Apparently Sessions just said “f*ck it” and decided to go rogue with the speech, because a written version says that Sessions’ remarks were supposed to be “The sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage.”

A statement from Ian Prior, a a DOJ spokesperson.

“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,” Prior said.

CNN notes the historical usage of the phrase.

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer used the term in a speech in 2016.

The concept of the office of sheriff — being an independent, elected law enforcement entity — originates in Anglo-Saxon England. The word “sheriff” combines the Anglo-Saxon words “shire,” meaning “county,” and “reeve,” meaning “guardian,” Cato analyst David Kopel notes in The Washington Post.

In an opinion piece, Lloyd Green of The Hill adds this.

America is riven by more than enough real differences. Trashing our legal tradition for the sake of reflexive political correctness or tribalism does no one any favors. Instead, it further heightens the chasm that dwells within our common language and Constitution.

And this.

Over the long haul, divorcing the United States from history does no one any good. Rather, it stands to harm us all.

The Washington Post weighed in.

Several things conspired to make this seem like a Very Big Deal: Sessions has a history of racial controversy, the adjective didn’t appear in Sessions’s prepared remarks, and there is a clear and demonstrated history of Trump and his administration exploiting dog-whistle politics.

And there is this biggie, also via The Washington Post.

The National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke unearthed multiple examples of Obama himself using the same word as Sessions:

WaPo cites Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) as one of the most “full-throated responses.”

They point out, however, that Schatz likely has no experience with legal terminology.

Is it possible that Sessions inserted the term to provoke? In the sense that anything is possible, yes. But the term is so noncontroversial in legal circles that Obama and his administration used it with some regularity. And it probably won’t surprise you to know that Schatz is not among the sizable minority of members of Congress who are lawyers.

OK I get it. There are enough genuinely threatening “dog whistles” going on in the Trump administration and we need to focus on those, not on things like this. I GET it. I do. And I don’t want to be one of the “roiled political writers” that The Hill’s author mentioned. But can we agree that Sessions would have been well served to use different language? Since he deviated from his prepared speech, I think we can ascertain that he may have deliberately chosen language that he knew would incite some people to outrage. The very definition of dog-whistle politics.

Did Sessions deliberately provoke us? I don’t know. But I know his history and I know I’m allowed to have a personal opinion as to his motivation. And my opinion is that Jeff Sessions is a racist jerk.

Image via video screegrab

Tiffany Willis Clark is a fifth-generation Texan and the founder and editor-in-chief of Liberal America and AmReading.com. An unapologetic member of the Christian Left, she had a long and successful career actively working with at-risk youth, people struggling with poverty and unemployment, and disadvantaged and oppressed populations. She’s passionate about their struggles. In 2011, she made the decision to pursue her dreams and become a full-time writer. Connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page.