On Monday, CNN published a truly strange article about a speech given by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a meeting of the National Sheriffs Association. In a statement that would seem unremarkable to most observers, Sessions referred to the “Anglo-American heritage” of the position of sheriff.
It was a slight departure from his prepared remarks, and the CNN article instantly set off howls of outrage that Sessions was engaging in some kind of implicit racism or dog-whistle for bigots. This was entirely absurd, as anybody with even a passing familiarity with the law and legal history would know.
As he was explaining in his comments, the office of a local sheriff is indeed a unique feature of the legal system America inherited from England.
Anglo-American could not be a less controversial term
In the taxonomy of legal systems, Anglo-American is a widely used term without any racial connotations. It is mostly interchangeable with the label “common law,” as opposed to the civil law system, with its Roman roots and heavy Napoleonic influence.
Most former British colonies still use variants of the common law system, including the United States, while civil law predominates in most of the rest of the world. America is by far the largest and most influential of those nations, thus the term Anglo-American. It has nothing to do with the racial or ethnic heritage of any particular individual.
Even the Encyclopedia Britannica, no bastion of bigotry, refers to “common law, also called Anglo-American law” in its article on the topic. Then-Senator Barack Obama used the term in a speech in 2006. Supreme Court decisions, from both sides of the political aisle, invoke the concept by the same name with regularity.
It’s understandable to expect the worst from Jeff Sessions, a tough-on-crime throwback widely loathed by libertarians and progressives alike. He has a history that can fairly be described as insensitive or tone-deaf, at best, when it comes to race. His nomination by Ronald Reagan to be a federal judge was defeated in the Senate in large part over such allegations.
The media’s pathetic desperation to make something a Trump official said appear racist
But a commonly-used and perfectly accurate legal term doesn’t become racist just because Jeff Sessions said it. Instead, it seems apparent that the reporters who pounced on this non-story, did so out of their own ignorance of just how mundane and common the label is. The comments from Sessions about the historical origins of sheriffs, could have been lifted straight from any textbook on the subject.
The self-styled #Resistance has plenty of valid and legitimate objections to the norm-busting insanity coming out of the Trump administration on a daily basis, and in particular to the draconian and often-ignorant policies being pushed by the Attorney General. For those on the left and in the media to latch on to such a contrived and substanceless complaint, only discredits their own intellectual legitimacy.
(Photo of then-Senator Jeff Sessions speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. in 2011 by Gage Skidmore)