In what appeared to be an off-the-cuff moment, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions lauded the "Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement" while speaking to sheriffs on Monday.
"Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people's protector who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process," he told the National Sheriffs' Association. "The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement."
He continued: "We must never erode this historic office."
The mention of "Anglo-American heritage" was not a part of prepared remarks provided by the Justice Department. Instead, the remarks said sheriffs were essential to "our legal heritage."
The "Anglo-American" phrase has inspired some criticism from those that said the comment was racially insensitive.
DOJ defended Sessions's comments, pointing to the shared legal heritage between America and England.
“As most law students learn in the first week of their first year, Anglo-American law — also known as the common law — is a shared legal heritage between England and America. The sheriff is unique to that shared legal heritage," spokesman Ian Prior said. "Before reporters sloppily imply nefarious meaning behind the term, we would suggest that they read any number of the Supreme Court opinions that use the term. Or they could simply put ‘Anglo-American law’ into Google.”
And indeed, the connection between the office of sheriff and its establishment by England is well documented. University of Denver law professor David Kopel wrote about it for the Washington Post in 2014:
"By the time that the American Colonies were being settled, the Office of Sheriff was declining in England, but the move across the Atlantic brought new energy and importance to the Office," he wrote. "The Americans restored what they considered to be the ancient Anglo-Saxon practice of popular election of Sheriffs."
Sessions, a former Alabama senator, has long been accused of being racially insensitive. In 1986, allegations of racism sunk his nomination to a federal judgeship.
During his confirmation hearing for attorney general, Sessions said he'd been mischaracterized.
“I did not harbor the animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of. I did not,” he said last year.
Some of his critics have accused Sessions of pushing a racial agenda since he took the helm at DOJ, from ongoing battles with sanctuary cities to cracking down on the legal marijuana industry.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson