Holder’s Legacy: How The First Black Attorney General Will Be Remembered

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The country’s first black attorney general revealed his long-anticipated decision on Thursday to resign, winding down a six-year reign marked by significant accomplishments and an unprecedented regularity of clashes with opponents.

Eric Holder will step down once his replacement is confirmed by the Senate.

“His legacy will be formed primarily around the improvements in the criminal justice system, particularly in sentencing,” said Jamie Gorelick, formerly the second-ranking official in the Clinton Justice Department. “The second thing is civil rights and voting rights.”

Atop the accomplishments touted by the Justice Department was Holder’s work to protect voting rights after the Supreme Court struck down a centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act in June 2013. The DOJ sued Texas and North Carolina for restrictive voter laws in the wake of that decision.

Holder’s tenure marked a reduction in criminal sentencing disparities for users of cocaine and crack-cocaine. Supporters also tout his 2010 Access To Justice program, aimed at making sure low-income defendants have lawyers.

“The most impressive thing about the attorney general is that unlike so many prosecutors he’s made an enormous effort to try and improve access to justice for low income people,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, a progressive legal advocacy group. “It’s not a typical thing for someone who’s running a major law enforcement entity to think about the people on the other side of the law.”

President Barack Obama meets with Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

After President Barack Obama’s reelection, Holder hit the gas on criminal sentencing reforms, coming out for letting felons vote after they serve their time, and overseeing a huge clemency initiative for non-violent drug offenders. He relaxed enforcement of marijuana laws by opting not to sue Colorado and Washington for legalizing pot, even though the state laws approved in 2012 violate federal code.

In hindsight, one of Holder’s most significant moves as attorney general was to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011, which lit a fuse in the courts that has since led to the overturning of a swath of gay marriage bans.

Among Holder’s more controversial actions, which have drawn strong criticism from progressives and libertarians, have been to aggressively prosecute leakers, something the Obama administration has done to an unprecedented degree. Sometimes he went after the press: Holder asked the courts to force New York Times reporter James Risen to identify his source for reporting on a bungled CIA operation in Iran. Recently he said he won’t seek to jail Risen but vowed to continue targeting the alleged leaker of the information.

Holder was at his most polarizing when he spoke about race. His first major speech, in February 2009, won praise from African-Americans and angered conservatives — he said the United States was a “nation of cowards” in failing to confront issues of race head-on. Republicans never forgave him. His subsequent clashes with the GOP over the failed sting operation known as Fast and Furious led to the first-ever House vote to hold an attorney general in contempt. When he was badgered by House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa for allegedly breaking the law and covering it up, Holder snapped and declared the Republican’s conduct “shameful.” The tension culminated in a campaign by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to impeach Holder.


The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., right, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., left, the ranking member, considers whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

So it was no surprise when Republicans celebrated Holder’s announcement that he’ll soon quit as the country’s top law enforcement officer. Issa, for his part, called Holder “the most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history.” Cruz chided him for “repeatedly defying and refusing to enforce the law,” arguing that “Holder’s leadership has grievously undermined the Department of Justice’s long bipartisan tradition of independence and fidelity to law.”

Gorelick, who was former AG Janet Reno’s deputy, said no previous attorney general has clashed so often with the opposing party.

“Not to this extent,” she said. “It’s not totally unexpected in this political environment. But it’s not good for the country.”

Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero, called Holder’s decision to step down “a great loss for any American seeking justice in our society.”

“He has been a persistent and consistent leader in the struggle for civil and human rights. That legacy is in his bones,” the Georgia Democrat said in a statement. “It is written on his heart, and his intelligence and committed leadership will be hard to replace.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.
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