Contested Attorney General Jeff Sessions wiped a number of Obama-era “guidance letters” off the books last week, including one warning state and city courts of legality concerns on the fees and fines levied against low-income defendants.
In a stunning move Thursday, Dec. 21, Sessions withdrew the letter along with 24 other documents that he deemed “Unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.” Most, but not all, of the letters were enacted under President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Congress has provided for a regulatory process in statute, and we are going to follow it,” Sessions said in a statement. “This is good government and prevents confusing the public with improper and wrong advice. [And] therefore, any guidance that is outdated, used to circumvent the regulatory process, or that improperly goes beyond what is provided for in statutes or regulation should not be given effect.”
“We will continue to look for other examples to rescind, and we will uphold the rule of law,” he added.
The sweeping repeal follows an executive order by President Donald Trump in February that called for a broad review of regulatory policies across the federal government in an effort to “alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens on the American people”. Sessions followed with a memo last month taking aim at guidance letters, which he argued were being used to “evade required rule-making processes.”
Among the 25 documents rescinded this week, 10 relate to the Americans With Disabilities Act, six were issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, while the remaining nine covered everything from discrimination protections for peoples seeking U.S. citizenship to a review of housing discrimination practices.
A “Dear Colleague” letter advising courts across the United States against “slapping poor defendants with fines and fees to fill their jurisdictions’ coffers,” was also rescinded, a move some civil rights activists and others have criticized as both unconstitutional and racist. Such hefty fines were a legitimate concern among poor Blacks in St. Louis and other Missouri cities last year where municipalities were accused of using traffic fines and unpaid fees to generate revenue.
Last summer, over a dozen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging that 13 St. Louis County towns had targeted and conspired against Black residents by arresting drivers who were too poor to pay their traffic tickets and remanding them to jail for extended periods of time. Then in December, the St. Louis suburb of Jennings was ordered to pay a $4.7 million settlement to nearly 2,000 people who were illegally jailed between February 2010 and August 2015. The city was accused of running a modern-day debtors’ prison, jailing people it knew could not afford to pay the high fines.
“These monetary punishments do nothing to protect the community while placing an unfair and unjust burden on people of lesser means,” American Bar Association President Hilarie Bass wrote in a statement in regard to Sessions’ announcement. “Fees and fines that don’t take into account a defendant’s ability to pay lead to the criminalization of poverty. … Minor infractions such as traffic violations can result in fees that spiral into thousands of dollars.”
Bass then asked the DOJ to reconsider its decision, echoing the March 2016 letter urging state and local courts to refrain from setting excessive fines or bail on low-income citizens.
“If we, as a country, are to live up to the ideal of equality under the law, then there cannot be a price on justice,” she concluded.
The shift is Sessions’ latest effort to totally reshape the Justice Department by dismantling many of the practices and policies set in place by his predecessors. In less than a year, the former Alabama senator has taken steps to reintroduce the war on drugs, restored the use of for-profit federal prisons and modified the DOJ’s legal standing on issues concerning civil, voting and LGBT rights.
The 25 “guidance documents” rescinded for 2017 are as follows:
- ATF Procedure 75-4.
- Industry Circular 75-10.
- ATF Ruling 85-3.
- Industry Circular 85-3.
- ATF Ruling 2001-1.
- ATF Ruling 2004-1.
- Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative Guidelines (2013).
- Northern Border Prosecution Initiative Guidelines (2013).
- Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grants Program Guidance Manual (2007).
- Advisory for Recipients of Financial Assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice on Levying Fines and Fees on Juveniles (January 2017).
- Dear Colleague Letter on Enforcement of Fines and Fees (March 2016).
- ADA Myths and Facts (1995).
- Common ADA Problems at Newly Constructed Lodging Facilities (November 1999).
- Title II Highlights (last updated 2008).
- Title III Highlights (last updated 2008).
- Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Places of Business (July 1996).
- ADA Business Brief: Service Animals (April 2002).
- Prior Joint Statement of the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development Group Homes, Local Land Use, and the Fair Housing Act (August 18, 1999).
- Letter to Alain Baudry, Esq., with standards for conducting internal audit in a non-discriminatory fashion (December 4, 2009).
- Letter to Esmeralda Zendejas on how to determine whether lawful permanent residents are protected against citizenship status discrimination (May 30, 2012).
- Common ADA Errors and Omissions in New Construction and Alterations (June 1997).
- Common Questions: Readily Achievable Barrier Removal and Design Details: Van Accessible Parking Spaces (August 1996).
- Website guidance on bailing-out procedures under section 4(b) and section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (2004).
- Americans with Disabilities Act Questions and Answers (May 2002).
- Statement of the Department of Justice on Application of the Integration Mandate of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Olmstead v. L.C. to State and Local Governments’ Employment Service Systems for Individuals with Disabilities (October 31, 2016).