WASHINGTON - A day after reassuring members of Congress that he'd allow the special counsel to complete his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, attorney general nominee William Barr drew fresh criticism Wednesday over his support for the controversial policies of his ousted predecessor, Jeff Sessions.
A parade of character witnesses and subject matter experts appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to offer sharply divergent views of the nominee, a tough-on-crime former attorney general who has praised Sessions. While friends and associates lauded Barr's integrity and commitment to the rule of law, civil rights leaders worried that he would carry on Sessions' policies.
"For the past two years, the Justice Department has been led by an attorney general intent on restricting civil and human rights at every turn," said Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, a leading civil rights advocacy organization. "The nation needs an attorney general who will dramatically change course and enforce federal civil rights laws with vigor and independence. Based on his alarming record, we are convinced that William Barr will not do so."
Other major civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest, have opposed Barr's nomination, which is widely expected to be approved by the Senate, where Republicans hold a majority.
Although Sessions was praised by many for cracking down on violent crime and illegal immigration, he was criticized by the NAACP and others for undoing key Obama-era Justice Department policies, including reform agreements with police departments involved in shootings and rights violations, as well as protections for LGBTQ students.
Barr has supported many of the initiatives enacted by Sessions. In an opinion piece he co-authored with two other former Republican attorneys general after Sessions' ouster in November, he praised Sessions for "[restoring] law and order" by reinstituting tough sentencing guidelines for drug dealers, cracking down on illegal immigration, overseeing a record number of prosecutions of violent crime defendants and "refocusing" the Justice Department's efforts to protect freedoms of expression and religion.
Asked whether he'd continue Sessions' policies, Barr told lawmakers on Monday that he supported ending the police department reform agreements known as consent decrees and opposed a controversial decision by Sessions to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in states where marijuana use is legal. But he was noncommittal on other initiatives, saying he'd have to examine their legal bases before deciding which to keep.
Barr also offered strong support for enforcing civil rights statutes and laws against hate crimes, which have been on the rise in recent years.
"We must have zero tolerance for such crimes," he said.
Barr has drawn scrutiny in recent weeks for his past opposition to criminal justice reform. In 1992, he said "our system is fair and does not treat people differently." Also in 1992, the then-attorney general wrote the preface to a Justice Department report, The Case for More Incarceration, that argued "prisons work" and "we need more of them." As recently as 2015, he opposed bipartisan legislation on sentencing reform.
Under questioning, Barr defended his position, saying he advocated for incarcerating violent and chronic offenders at a time of rising crime in the country. He also acknowledged that heavy penalties for crack offenses had "harmed the black community."
Barr also pledged to "diligently" enforce the First Step Act, a sweeping new criminal justice reform law that lowers some mandatory sentences and gives prisoners added opportunities to earn reductions in jail time.