Eric Holder: Will His Record Stand the Test of Time?

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Eric Holder announced his intent to resign from office back in September. After serving as America’s third-longest serving Attorney General, he will step down in the coming days, as soon as nominee Loretta Lynch, current United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is confirmed by the Senate. Her confirmation is likely; FiveThirtyEight has given her a 92 percent chance, assuming the broader floor will mirror the 12-to-8 vote that advanced her nomination from the Senate Judiciary Committee. If appointed, she will be the second women to hold the post, after Janet Reno, and the second African-American, following her immediate predecessor, Holder.

With Lynch’s nomination close to assured, President Barack Obama held a departure ceremony for Holder at the Department of Justice. It was an emotional tribute. “I think about all the young people out there who have seen you work and have been able to get just an innate sense, without knowing you personally, that you’re a good man,” Obama said at the event, which also marked the unveiling of Holder’s official portrait. The president also called Holder on of the “finest” of U.S. Attorney Generals, noting that he had made “hundreds of terrorism convictions,” led the “largest mafia takedown in history,” oversaw “billion-dollar financial fraud cases,” and implemented “long-overdue reforms to our criminal justice system.” Even more important to the legacy of the Obama administration, Holder has done a great deal to “restore what he calls the ‘conscience’ of the nation,” added the president.

“Under Eric’s watch, this department has relentlessly defended the Voting Rights Act — and the right to vote — pushed back against attempts to undermine that right.  He’s challenged discriminatory state immigration laws that not only risked harassment of citizens and legal immigrants, but actually made it harder for law enforcement to do their job.  He’s brought a record number of prosecutions for human trafficking and hate crimes, and resolution to legal disputes with Native Americans that had languished for years,” said Obama. “Several years ago, Eric recommended that our government stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, because he wants our country to be a place where love is love — and where same-sex marriage is recognized on the federal level, and same-sex couples can receive the same federal benefits as anybody else.”

Still, his work as AG wasn’t always well received, and Obama alluded to that fact with a well-placed quip. After remarking on the length of Holder’s service, the presidented added: “I know it felt even longer.” However, he is not leaving at the request of the Obama Administration, but instead will be departing under his own terms. The decision is one that has been in the works for some time, and in fact, it’s likely President Obama would have preferred Holder to remain in office until he had departed the presidency. NPR reports that a former government official said Holder was “adamant” about his departure so as to avoid being cornered into finishing out Obama’s second term as time ticks down to the 2016 elections.

Equal right to marry and efforts on behalf of LGBT rights

As attorney general, Holder angered many by choosing to allow state attorneys general to refuse to defend same-sex marriage bans in court appeals. “If I were attorney general in Kansas in 1953, I would not have defended a Kansas statute that put in place separate-but-equal facilities,” said Holder, according to The New York Times. “Engaging in that process and making that determination is something that’s appropriate for an attorney general to do,” he said, going on to call same-sex marriage the “defining civil rights challenge of our time.”

Many state AGs chose to take advantage of this option and opt out of defending their state ban, while others argued that it was their responsibility, regardless of personal opinion. They say history is written by the victor, and in this instance, it’s possible that 30 years from now, Holder will be viewed as a strong equal rights proponent. But for now, some argue that he recommended what amounts to a desertion of state constitutions, leaving them undefended by those sworn to take that role despite personal views.

Holder also went to bat against organizations with discriminative policies, such as the Boy Scouts. “It’s a relic of an age of prejudice and insufficient understanding,” said Holder in June, reports USA Today. “Unfortunately, the continuation of a policy that discriminates against gay adult leaders — by an iconic American institution — only preserves and perpetuates the worst kind of stereotypes.”

Opening the door to racial discourse

When people discuss Holder’s work on racial issues in America, the first quote that comes to mind is his accusation that America is “a nation of cowards.” That usually sets people off immediately. But it’s worth considering the context for this segment of his quote. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we — I believe — continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards,” said Holder, according to CNN. He went on to say that Americans are not willing to discuss race and that “certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one’s character. … I think if we’re going to ever make progress, we have to have the guts. We have to have the determination to be honest with each other.”

At the time, his comment ignited anger and arguments from both sides. Some found him insulting, while others argued that calling America cowardly was not the best way to start an open conversation. But Holder’s words packed a critical punch in a nation that sometimes all too easily forgets it has not left behind the inequalities of its history. This quote is also not the sum of his work to combat racial inequality. He worked against North Carolina’s and Texas’s voter rules that made it more difficult for minorities and senior citizens to vote. He also made an effort to convince Congress to consider cutting back on prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, which more often apply to minority groups.

This was before his involvement in Ferguson, where he worked to restore trust between authorities and a grieving, angry, and protesting public after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, in St. Louis County, Missouri. While he has no plans set in stone for when he leaves office, a Department of Justice official told The Guardian that “following his recent visit to Ferguson, Missouri, he has spoken with friends and associates about his wish to find a way to continue helping to restore trust between law enforcement and minority communities.”

Who is Loretta Lynch?

In her opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the end of January, she briefly outlined her plans and intentions, stating that she would “continue to build upon the department’s record of vigorously prosecuting those who prey on those most in need of our protection,” namely child exploitation, sexual trafficking, and other victimized groups.

She alluded Holder and Obama’s efforts to address law enforcement misconduct in the wake of protests spawned by Ferguson. “Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” said Lynch. She also mentioned two hot topics for Republicans in Washington: Cyber security and “fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress,” emphasizing a “relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance (emphasis added).” Those words, along with the rest of her careful statements during her time before the Senate, prove that she is indeed the Attorney General we need at this time.

Attorney General Holder had many strengths, and did significant, necessary work that helped improve equality and justice in the United States, in particular on issues of race and sexual orientation. However, given the partisan polarization in Washington at this time, a more objective candidate would perhaps help political workings across both parties, and increase bipartisan influence. Lynch does seem to be capable of playing that role.

Given the often listed political concerns of members of Congress regarding what they consider constitutional oversteps by President Obama, her emphasis in her opening statement on the constitution was undoubtedly intentional. It reveals what seems to be an established ability to appeal to both sides of the aisle, something brought up by Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz.

She has a 30-year career distinguishing herself as tough, fair, independent; and twice headed the most prominent U.S. attorney’s office in the country — twice being confirmed with bipartisan support by the United States Senate,” said Schultz. “But don’t take my word for it. This might be the first and only time we cite Bill O’Reilly from the podium. But just a few days ago, he called her a hero and happy that she’s the new Attorney General.” But, that doesn’t mean certain replies to questions put to Lynch didn’t diverge from what conservatives were hoping to hear — an equally important ability.

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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