In the early 1990s, children across Alabama’s large rural stretches still attended faltering public schools, some with exposed wiring and rainwater leaking into classrooms. The education was in disrepair, too. Teachers couldn’t assign homework for lack of textbooks. A steel mill announced it would no longer hire local high school graduates because most tested below the 8th grade level. In short, Alabama’s most economically disadvantaged students, primarily black children and those with disabilities, were missing out on a basic education.
Then, for a moment, change seemed possible. A civil rights lawsuit challenging the system for funding Alabama’s schools succeeded, and the state’s courts in 1993 declared the conditions in the poor schools a violation of Alabama’s Constitution. Gov. Guy Hunt, who had battled the litigation, accepted defeat, and vowed to work with the courts to negotiate a solution for equitably funding all of Alabama’s schools.
“This is a unique and timely opportunity to make historic improvements in Alabama’s public schools for our children,” Hunt said at a news conference in 1993, “and we will not miss this opportunity.”
Jeff Sessions had other ideas.
Sessions, elected Alabama attorney general just a year after the courts had begun review of reform measures, didn’t think the state’s courts should have any role in deciding how Alabama educated its children. He hired expensive private lawyers to fight the findings of the court — first at the district level, later at the state Supreme Court level. He succeeded in removing a judge sympathetic to the plight of poor students from the case. He filed appeal after appeal, insisting he be heard even after the state’s highest court issued final decisions. He fought every effort by the court to require that schools in the state’s poorer communities be funded at the same levels as its wealthier ones.
Sessions’s efforts won out — both in the short term, and in the end. His legal jousting across his two years as attorney general effectively prevented any overhaul to the way schools were financed in Alabama, and as a result helped drag out a case that would ultimately collapse years later when the makeup of the state’s top court turned over.
ProPublica tracked down and reviewed thousands of pages of court filings from the school funding case in Alabama. The legal argument Sessions made — again and again, and in the face of repeated rebuffs — turned on his view of the separation of powers. Only the legislature had the authority to decide how Alabama funded its schools, he maintained. Indeed, Sessions never spent a legal sentence arguing that Alabama’s educational system was equitable, that it didn’t clearly favor white and wealthier children while short-changing others. He simply argued the courts had no rightful place saying or doing anything about it.
“The court below is bound to stay out of the way so that the legislature, the executive and the administrative agencies can act to accomplish their constitutionally prescribed duties,” Sessions’ legal team wrote in one brief.
Today, Sessions has been nominated by President Trump to serve as the country’s next attorney general. At his confirmation hearings, Sessions pledged to uphold the nation's laws, regardless of his own beliefs. But his Democratic detractors have openly expressed doubts he’d enforce legal decisions with which he or the administration didn’t agree. Already, any number of Trump administration initiatives have provoked the threat of legal challenge, and indeed over the weekend the president's order limiting immigration from some Muslim countries wound up in federal court.