On Thursday, September 25th, Eric Holder announced his intention to step down as Attorney General. Holder will be known as America’s first African American Attorney General and steps down as the fourth longest serving Attorney General in U.S. history. Eric Holder was one of only three members of Obama’s cabinet to serve since the beginning of the administration in 2009 (the only two other members of Obama’s cabinet who have served since the beginning are Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture). Holder will also be known as the only Attorney General in history to be held in contempt of Congress.
Holder’s tenure was marred with controversy, particularly among conservatives. As Attorney General, Eric Holder aggressively waded into politically tumultuous waters. He used the Justice Department to aggressively go after voter ID laws passed by Republicans in four states, suing the states of North Carolina and Texas, while also signing on to challenges in Wisconsin and Ohio. The Department of Justice also launched an investigation into Pennsylvania’s voter ID law before it was ruled unconstitutional. Holder likened the ID requirement to a “poll tax” and thus illegal under the 1964 Voting Rights Act. When the Supreme Court struck down portions of the act unconstitutional in 2013, he was among the most outspoken critics of the high court’s decision.
Holder also used his post to advance LGBT issues. He refused to legally defend the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. Ultimately, challenges to the act led to the Supreme Court which ruled it unconstitutional in 2013 on a 5-4 vote. Holder also unilaterally expanded the federal marriage rights of gay married couples and urged state attorney generals to stop defending their state’s gay marriage bans.
Holder also shifted the federal stance on drug policy significantly. He allowed two states to move ahead with the legalization of recreational marijuana despite federal law banning the substance and set forth federal guidelines allowing banks to process money from marijuana businesses. He additionally sought to reduce mandatory minimums and sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.
Most recently, Holder went to Ferguson Missouri to help quell growing anger over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager who was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson. In that visit, he spoke about mistrust toward the police, stating “I understand that mistrust. I am Attorney General of the United States. But I am also a black man.” He would later go on to describe an incident in which he was pulled over on a New Jersey turnpike as a federal prosecutor.
Holder has previously talked about racial issues in ways that President Obama has been cautious about addressing. Just a months after Obama was sworn in for his first term, Holder described America as a “nation of cowards” on the issue of discussing race relations.
Attorney General Holder was not without his critics on the left or right. He provoking the ire of liberals when he decided to try 9/11 hijacker Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by military tribunal instead of civilian courts. Holder was also intensely criticized for prosecuting journalists and whistleblowers under the power of the Espionage Act, and for defending a drone strike in Yemen that took the life of a 16 year old American citizen in 2011. Holder has also been criticized for not aggressively prosecuting key players in the 2008 economic collapse that led to the Great Recession.
Republicans also criticized Holder for his involvement in a program called “Fast and Furious”. Fast and Furious was the name of a program where the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms allowed licensed gun dealerships in Tucson and Phoenix to illegally sell guns to straw purchasers. The end goal of the operation was to trace the illegally sold firearms to the drug cartels that were planning on using them and make a series of arrests. The operation failed, with only a handful of straw purchasers being arrested, and hundreds of the firearms that were being tracked by the Justice Department were lost. The genesis of the program began in the Bush administration in 2006, and was continued by Attorney General Holder until 2011. The gunwalking scandal reached critical mass after the December 2010 death of United States border control agent Brian Terry at the hands of a gun sold during the “Fast and Furious” operation. When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, they held a series of hearings on the incident, even having Mr. Holder testify before a congressional committee. After Holder denied requests for a series of documents sought by House Republicans into the Fast and Furious investigation, the House of Representatives voted to hold the Attorney General in contempt of Congress for the first time in history.
Throughout his public life, Eric Holder was combative with his political rivals, even openly mocking Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) in a congressional hearing. As news of Holder’s resignation got out, Republicans expressed joy at the prospect of his departure. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) stated, “I can’t think of any AG in history who has attacked Louisiana more than Holder. He’s tried to defund a Louisiana youth program because students prayed, sued to block voucher scholarships going to poor kids in failing schools, and threatened the release of Louisiana voters’ personal information. I’m proud to have voted against his Senate confirmation.” Other Republicans suggested any possible appointment would face a new level of scrutiny. Potential 2016 contender Republican Sen. Ted Cruz stated almost immediately “Republicans should refuse to vote on a replacement”
Possible replacements speculated about include high profile elected officials, including Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, and Attorney General of California Kamala Harris. The most likely choice is Donald Verrilli, the nation’s acting solicitor general. The Obama administration will likely name a new nominee in the coming weeks, before the end of the 114th Congress, in the hopes they will be able to get a confirmation vote before a new Congress with a potential Republican Senate. Holder was confirmed on a vote of 75-21 in 2009, a margin of victory political observers don’t expect to see with any possible replacement.
In announcing Holder’s retirement, Obama stated, “I made him America’s lawyer, the people’s lawyer. That comes with a big portfolio, from counterterrorism to civil rights, public corruption to white collar crime.” He ended his introduction by concluding, “So I just want to say thank you, Eric. Thank you to the men and women of the Justice Department, who work day in and out for the American people, and we could not be more grateful for everything that you’ve done, not just for me and the administration but for our country.”
In the speech announcing his retirement, Holder, visibly emotional said, “I come to this moment with very mixed emotions, proud of what the men and women of the Department of Justice have accomplished over the last six years and, at the same time, very sad that I will not be a formal part of the great things that this department and this president will accomplish over the next two.” He concluded by stating, “In the months ahead, I will leave the Department of Justice, but I will never leave the work. I will continue to serve and try to find ways to make our nation even more true to its founding ideals, and I thank you all for joining me on a journey that now moves in another direction, but that will always be guided by the pursuit of justice and aimed at the North Star.”