Attorney General Eric Holder leaves a mixed legacy of highs and lows as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
A ground-breaker across several decades, the 63-year-old Columbia Law School graduate was the first African-American to lead the Justice Department. His tenure covered major issues of the day, including civil rights, crime, same-sex marriage and terrorism.
He had setbacks: He was forced to drop plans to try a major terrorism suspect in New York, for example, and was found in contempt by the House of Representatives for refusing to turn over documents in an investigation of a Justice operation gone bad.
And he had successes, investing considerable time and effort on civil rights, voting rights and drug-sentencing issues, scoring wins in several areas.
At the White House on Thursday, Holder admitted to mixed emotions about his resignation from a department that he first joined in 1976, which will take effect once the Senate confirms his still-unnamed successor.
“Work remains to be done,” Holder said, “but our list of accomplishments is real.”
His department has initiated a record number of systemic civil rights investigations into local law enforcement agencies, including most recently the Ferguson, Mo.. police department. Holder also initiated high-profile Voting Rights Act challenges against multiple states, including Texas and North Carolina, and he successfully argued for scaling back certain harsh drug sentences.
“He will be sorely missed,” said Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington office. “His departure is a tremendous loss for the country and for the African-American community.”
At the same time, Holder stumbled politically, and through long stretches of his nearly six-year tenure he proved a convenient target for congressional Republicans as well as an occasional Democrat.
His low point came over the controversial Fast and Furious gun-running operation. The operation let suspected criminals buy guns in order to trace the weapons to drug cartel members, but some of the guns were later linked to crime scenes, including the murder of a Border Patrol agent.
In 2012, the GOP-controlled House voted to hold Holder in criminal contempt for his refusal to turn over certain documents on the ill-fated program. Though partisanship infused the exercise – Congressional Black Caucus members marched off the House floor in protest – 17 Democrats voted for the measure.
The criminal contempt measure, the first in modern history against a sitting member of the president’s Cabinet, died once it was forwarded to the Justice Department. But its aftershocks continued to rattle Holder’s relations with Congress.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday that he’d “lost confidence in the attorney general’s ability to lead a long time ago,” and the distaste has at times appeared mutual and intensely personal.
“I realize that contempt is not a big deal to our attorney general, but it is important that we have proper oversight,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, told Holder at a hearing last April.
“You don’t want to go there, buddy, all right?” Holder retorted. “You don’t want to go there, OK?”
Underscoring the nastiness, Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, managed to collect 29 House co-sponsors for a resolution to impeach Holder.
The African-American congressman whose district includes Ferguson, Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay, acknowledged that Holder was a polarizing figure on Capitol Hill, but said that came with the territory.
“Hey, if you don’t break some eggs, you won’t be making an omelet, OK?” Clay said Thursday. “He broke some eggs, and I appreciated the fact that he did and (yet) didn’t back down from his principles or his positions.”
Democrats, too, periodically faulted Holder, though less frequently and with less fervency than Republicans did. Some liberal lawmakers thought Holder’s department was too lenient with Wall Street firms following the financial crisis. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., once complained to Holder, a former partner in the elite Covington & Burling law firm, that “we have a prosecution-free zone for large banks in America.”
The number of financial institution fraud prosecutions fell to 1,365 in fiscal 2011, down from over 3,000 in 2001, according to documents analyzed by the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Holder defended his department’s corporate accountability record, which included getting oil giant BP to plead guilty to 14 criminal counts, including manslaughter, and pay $4 billion for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. More recently, Holder’s team secured a $16.65 billion settlement last month with Bank of America to resolve wide-ranging mortgage fraud allegations.
Holder directed Justice Department attorneys to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which foreshadowed the Supreme Court’s decision last year striking down the law’s ban on same-sex couples receiving federal marriage benefits.
Civil libertarians decried his department’s aggressiveness in prosecuting information leaks, which sometimes entailed going after journalists with subpoenas.
In other cases, Holder had to back down in the face of bipartisan criticism that focused as much on his political management as on his policies.
Notably, he announced plans in 2009 to try alleged 9/11 plotters including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at a civilian court in New York. The move drew protests from the likes of influential Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who feared the high costs and potential risks associated with a civilian trial in the middle of the city, and second-guessing from political pros who thought Holder had failed to properly prepare the ground. In 2011, the administration reversed course and relocated the trials to Guantanamo Bay. The military commission proceedings are still ongoing.
Holder had more success with some of his signature initiatives, including the reconsideration of harsh war-on-drug penalties.
On Tuesday, for instance, the former federal prosecutor announced that the federal prison population has dropped by roughly 4,800 inmates since last September. This is the first time that population has fallen over a fiscal year since 1980, and the Bureau of Prisons projects that it will fall by an additional 12,000 inmates over the next two years.
“We are finally moving in the right direction,” Holder said, adding that “my hope is that we’re witnessing the start of a trend that will only accelerate.”