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Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the Michigan Chapter of the Federalist Society


Plymouth, MI
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Matthew, for that kind introduction and thank you for your leadership at this important time for Detroit and the region.

You and your team are doing great work. Just last week you convicted a doctor in West Bloomfield for $8.9 million in health care fraud.  And a few months ago, you secured a 5 year sentence for a doctor who had committed $15 million worth of opioid fraud. 

These are important cases and take much work. President Trump has made ending opioid abuse a top priority for this administration. He has directed a 30 percent reduction in prescription opioids, and we are working to meet that goal.

I want to thank the Michigan Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society for inviting me to be here with all of you tonight, especially Karen Ludden, your current president, and her predecessor Brian Shekell.

I have admired and appreciated the Federalist Society from the beginning.  I remember when the Society was founded back in 1982.  Your first two faculty advisers were a pair of DOJ veterans named Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia. 

I was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama at the time, and I immediately got involved.

Today there are some 70,000 Federalist Society members across America.  They are in the academy, in the courts, in law offices, in Congress, and—once again—in the White House and the Department of Justice.

There is no doubt that the Federalist Society has made an enormous and positive difference in our legal system. 

I cannot name one entity over the last 35 years that has come close to the influence the Federalist Society has achieved.  Your work has been the core of our relentless efforts to restore the rule of law in this great nation.

We have a lot of esteemed guests here tonight: like former Chief Justice Taylor, Judge Maloney, Judge Murray, and Judge Cleland.

Thank you to Chief Justice Markman.  One of my staff members was a student in his class a few years ago, and he said that the Chief Justice is a brilliant teacher but also a very tough grader.  I’ve made sure to footnote everything I plan to say tonight just in case he decides to hand out grades for this evening. 

I also know Justice Markman well from his time as Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy under Reagan and U.S. Attorney under President George H.W. Bush.

Finally I want to recognize the stars of the show: Judge Richard Suhrheinrich, the winner of this year’s Grano Award, and the presenter of the award, former Chief Justice Maura Corrigan of the Michigan Supreme Court, widow of the late Professor Grano.

Judge Suhrheinrich was nominated by President Reagan to the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan nearly 35 years ago, and later elevated to the Sixth Circuit by the President George H.W. Bush.  Over his long tenure, he has been a fair, prudent judge and a stalwart defender of the Constitution.

In ACLU v. Mercer, a case in 2005 about a court room in Kentucky that displayed a framed copy of the Ten Commandments along with other references to the Western legal tradition, Judge Suhrheinrich wisely said of the ACLU’s repeated references to Jefferson’s “separation of church and state”: “This extra-constitutional construct has grown tiresome.”

Indeed, Jefferson’s nice letter is not a part of the Constitution, but the First Amendment is.

It is the crown jewel of our Bill of Rights and one of the greatest treasures of our legal system.  It is the guarantee of the rights that we cherish as necessary for human fulfillment.

We cannot have free and deliberative government without freedom of thought. And we cannot have freedom of thought without freedom of speech.

I might mention a different Jefferson quote instead—one that I am reminded of daily in this job and is chiseled in the stone of his memorial:  “I swear upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is precious, rare in this world, and fragile. 

In most societies throughout history, openly criticizing the government or expressing certain opinions could land you in jail, or worse. 

And those in power and stung by criticism are constantly looking for ways to contain the criticism so they may be able to continue in their places of power without the distraction of other opinions.

Free speech is one of the reasons that America is exceptional—and continuing that tradition is vital to the future of our Republic.  It is a top priority of this Department of Justice.

Our Founders believed that reason is the best means to truth and justice.  Reason requires discourse and, frequently, argument.

The Father of our Constitution, James Madison, said in protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts—which were the speech codes of their day—that the freedom of speech is “the only effectual guardian of every other right.”

When it was the Federalists against the Anti-federalists, Abraham Lincoln against Stephen Douglas, Martin Luther King against George Wallace, and in so many other episodes in our history, speech led Americans to a more just society.

Under President Trump’s strong leadership, this Department of Justice is doing its part to protect our Republic by protecting this right.  And we feel the affirmation of many thoughtful Federalist Society members in our work.

For example, we have got involved in cases regarding free speech on college campuses by filing Statements of Interest.  We will potentially file more in the future.

One of these cases arose when a student proclaimed his Christian faith at a school in Georgia.

This case is a reminder that these two First Amendment rights—freedom of speech and religious liberty—are closely connected.  As we fulfill our duty to protect freedom of speech, we are just as vigilant in protecting religious freedom.  That is our duty, as well.

The Founders knew that religion is not an accident of history or a passing circumstance.  It is at the core of the human experience. Indeed, it was placed in the first line of the First Amendment.

Importantly, the Constitution protects more than private religious thought. It guarantees to all Americans the right to freely exercise their religious beliefs.

And, in fact, 12 of the 13 colonies authored state constitutions that protected the free exercise of religion. 

Six of the original 13 states had “established” churches, and almost every state made accommodations for religious minorities like Quakers or Mennonites.  They did not insist on uniform doctrines. 

Our Founders did not consider religion an enemy of freedom or equality—and in the Trump administration, neither do we.

Our first president, George Washington, wrote to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island that in America, “all possess alike liberty of conscience.”

In his farewell address, President Washington warned, “let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion… Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Thomas Jefferson did not mention on his tombstone that he had served as president. He was more proud of three accomplishments: that he had founded the University of Virginia, authored the Declaration of Independence, and authored the statute of religious freedom in Virginia.

The national commitment to religious freedom made by our Founders has continued throughout our history.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country, he noted that “in France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions.  But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.” 

And of course it was faith and a desire to "carry the gospel of freedom" that inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., to march and strive to make this country stronger yet. 

He said that we "must not seek to solve the problem" of segregation merely for political reasons, but "in the final analysis, we must get rid of segregation because it is sinful."  It undermined the promise, as he described it, that "each individual has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state...they are gifts from the hands of Almighty God."

There is no doubt that the spiritual foundation of his message gave it its power.

It is no secret that, in recent years, the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief.  Many Americans have felt—understandably—that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.

The challenges our nation faces today concerning the “free exercise” of our faith have become acute.  I believe that the 2016 election was significantly impacted by this concern and that this motivated many voters. 

President Trump made a promise that was heard.  In substance, he said he respected people of faith and he promised to protect them in the free exercise of their faith.  This promise was well received.

Since his election, President Trump has been an unwavering defender of religious liberty. He has promised that under a Trump Administration, “the federal government will never, ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs.”

And he is fulfilling that promise.  He has appointed an outstanding Supreme Court Justice with a track record of applying the law as written, Neil Gorsuch.  The Senate has confirmed a total of 43 Trump judges, including 21 circuit judges—the most circuit judges at this stage of any Presidential administration.  And this room knows the caliber and the faithfulness of these judges.  That includes Sixth Circuit Judge Joan Larsen—formerly of the Michigan Supreme Court and a member of this chapter of the Federalist Society.

President Trump also directed me to issue legal guidance for all executive agencies how to apply federal religious liberty protections.  Last fall I issued that guidance, which makes clear that religious exercise is not just some policy preference: it is an inalienable right.

Our Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom of thought or the freedom to worship in secret.  It protects the open expression and exercise of religious belief in public. 

We don’t waive our constitutional rights when we participate fully in public life and civic society.

At the Department of Justice, we are taking these fundamental principles seriously and we are putting them into action. 

For example, we have settled 22 civil cases with 90 plaintiffs regarding the previous administration’s wrongful contraception mandate. 

Earlier this week, a district court in Colorado issued a permanent injunction in the case that the Obama administration had litigated against the Little Sisters of the Poor.  The Obama administration’s mandate was a clear violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

Because this injunction is permanent, the government can never again violate the law in the way the Obama administration did.

These cases should never have been necessary in the first place.

Our Solicitor General argued before the Supreme Court in support of a Colorado baker who was sued for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

And we’re not going to remain on the defensive.  We’re not going to let the Constitution’s opponents dictate terms to us.  We are going to actively look for ways to restore the American tradition of protecting religious Americans.

Under President Donald Trump, the Department is standing up for the Constitution as written—and that means that we are standing up for the American people, too.

We believe in the power and meaning of the words in our Constitution and laws.  Judges are not empowered to give them new meaning.

This effort is not easy.  But it is necessary. 

We have inherited—and advanced—the most magnificent legal system in the history of the world.  We owe it to our descendants—as much as to our ancestors—to preserve this system for the future.

As we work to uphold the rule of law in this country, I am so grateful that we can count on the Federalist Society – and in particular, the courageous men and women in this room and throughout Michigan – to join us in defending the First Amendment rights of the American people.

Thank you all for your important work.

Updated May 31, 2018