Holding the Government Accountable

Affidavit: Trump Justice Nominee Backed Defiance of Court Orders

Sworn affidavits indicate Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions and possible Supreme Court choice William Pryor favored disregard of key judicial rulings
(Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) Photo: Ryan J. Reilly / Flickr)

Sworn affidavits indicate Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions and possible Supreme Court choice William Pryor favored disregard of key judicial rulings

A pair of little-noticed sworn affidavits from 2003 highlight the apparent support of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), President-elect Trump’s attorney general nominee, for defying federal and state court orders in key areas of law. The statements describe two separate meetings, one attended by Sessions and the other by William Pryor, currently a federal appeals court judge whose name appears on President-elect Trump’s short-list for nomination to the US Supreme Court. Both Sessions and Pryor have long been controversial figures because of their statements on race and other issues.

Together the affidavits refer specifically to the apparent support of Sessions and Pryor for defying court-ordered limits on the display of religious objects on public property, and prayers said in court or on school playing-fields. In Alabama and elsewhere such defiance of judicial mandates has also long been used to resist everything from civil and voting rights to gay marriage.

The meeting with Sessions occurred in late 1996 in the office of Alabama’s then-governor Forrest H. “Fob” James Jr. and included James’ son and advisor, Forrest H. “Fob” James III. The purpose of the meeting was for Governor James to get advice from Sessions—who had been Alabama’s state attorney general until he was elected to the US Senate—about whether or not to appoint Pryor to replace Sessions.

Sessions: Speaking “With Great Emphasis”

In the son’s signed account of the meeting with Sessions, he recalls squarely asking Sessions about Pryor’s willingness to resist court orders in support of his father, the governor.

“I raised the issue with Governor James and Senator Sessions,” the son testified, “about whether Pryor would support Governor James in contempt-of-court situations if the Governor, as he had stated in his campaign and on many occasions to me personally, refused to enforce or prevented enforcement of certain federal and state court orders, especially in the church-state arena ….”

The son’s affidavit is very clear about Sessions’ reply. “In response to my questions about defying courts orders and contempt-of-court citations,” the affidavit reads, “Senator Sessions, with great emphasis, said words to the effect that the Governor could find no one who would stand with him more strongly in such situations than Bill Pryor.”

America’s Next Attorney General?

The affidavits of Governor James and his son highlight a host of issues of major concern to many Alabama officials, notably Governor James, a deeply conservative businessman first elected as a Democrat in 1978, and later as a Republican in 1994.

“One of the primary reasons I ran for Governor … was a forty year pattern of illegal acts by the U.S. Supreme Court,” the governor declared in his affidavit. “Forbidding pre-game prayer by young athletes. The removal of the 10 Commandments from the schools, and the ever-expanding grab for power from the courts, especially the federal courts….”

Sessions has been politically close to those, like Governor James, who reject what they see as judicial overreach when courts strike down democratically enacted state laws. Governor James’ reference to the Ten Commandments, for example, involved his political ally, Alabama Judge Roy Moore, whose own attempts to ignore or circumvent court orders has generated national headlines and twice resulted in his removal from office.

Former Chief Judge of Alabama Supreme Court, Judge Roy Moore court portrait
Former Chief Judge of Alabama Supreme Court, Judge Roy Moore

To this day, Sessions has two posts on his official Senate website extolling Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments, first installed in his county courtroom in the early 1990s. When Moore later put up a stone monument of the tablets in Alabama’s Supreme Court building, a federal judge declared the action unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which requires a separation of church and state.

In an interview with POGO, Judge Moore praised Sessions.

“I have never had any conflict with him, and he’s done a good job. He has fought ‘judicial supremacy,’ just as I have,” Judge Moore said. “He and I have strongly stood in opposition when the courts and liberal judges start making laws in total disregard of … the US Constitution.”

Pryor Strongly Agrees

After Governor James’ meeting with Sessions, the governor summoned Pryor, who had served as deputy state attorney general under Sessions. The intention: to make sure that Pryor’s legal and Constitutional views accorded with Sessions’ earlier description of them.

As the Governor’s affidavit put it, “I talked to Bill Pryor about all this…I told Bill about my view that Constitutional officials needed to challenge the Supreme Court. For instance, for twenty years my view has been that a Governor should refuse to allow enforcement of a patently unconstitutional court order, and force the president to take action one way or the other on the issue. “

Pryor’s response? According to the governor’s sworn statement: “Bill Pryor was aware of my views when I appointed him, because we discussed these things. Bill had indicated nothing but his wholehearted support of my position on these issues at the time.”

Yet in a surprise move, in 2003 Pryor brought an ethics charge against Moore for his defiance of a federal court order to remove the Ten Commandments from Alabama’s Supreme Court. The ethics charge ran counter to expectations reportedly raised during Sessions’ and Pryor’s meetings with the Governor and his son. Also counter to those expectations: Sessions later praised Pryor for the move.

Federal Appeals Court Judge William Pryor court portrait
Federal Appeals Court Judge William Pryor

To fight back against Pryor, Moore’s legal team tried to have Pryor blocked from bringing the ethics charge. To bolster their argument for Pryor’s removal, they approached Governor James and his son, who willingly provided the sworn statements describing what Sessions and Pryor had said in private meetings.(Pryor was not blocked, and Moore was forced to step aside.)

Moore himself told POGO: “Bill Pryor made a complete shift on me, from support to attack. That shift was just a deal to get him his federal judgeship. It was fairly obvious.”

“An extraordinary individual, a wonderful human being”

To no one’s surprise, the Moore controversy came up in 2003 as Pryor faced his own confirmation as a judge before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sessions took the lead in introducing his former deputy to the panel.

“He [Pryor] is an extraordinary individual, a wonderful human being, a brilliant lawyer, a man of the highest integrity, who has won the respect and support and confidence of the people of Alabama to an extraordinary degree,” Sessions said.

Democrats on the committee led by Senator Charles Schumer, currently Minority Leader in the Senate, were critical of Pryor. Schumer labeled Pryor’s legal and Constitutional views “way-out-of-the-mainstream.” Others pointed to Pryor’s public criticism of Roe v. Wade, which guarantees a woman’s right to abortion, and his filing of a Supreme Court brief in a Texas sodomy case in which Pryor compared homosexual acts to “prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography and even incest and pedophilia.”

To overcome a Democratic filibuster, President George W. Bush used a recess appointment to install Pryor in 2004. The Senate finally confirmed him in 2005 to a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Neither Sessions nor Pryor responded to POGO’s request for comment on the affidavits, nor would they say whether they had ever challenged the accuracy of Governor James’ statement or that of his son. There appears to be no public record of them having done so.

Governor James and his son also did not reply to requests for comment.

As a result the question of how firmly Sessions and Pryor still hold the legal and Constitutional opinions they seemed to endorse remains unresolved. Sessions’ confirmation hearing should determine how or if those principles will guide his conduct as US attorney general.