After his departure, America will perhaps not have another attorney general like Eric Holder in a long time. Maybe the standard he set at the Justice Department will inspire or force succeeding presidents after Barack Obama to choose an AG who is rooted both in the notion and the history that has informed this nation’s continued fight for equal justice under the law.
Very few leaders across this land have been as consequential with all deliberate speed as Holder. I can’t think of that many leaders in our government and in this dispensation, like Holder who has been so forceful with professional integrity, honest with nobility and willing to tackle the daring question of race and justice head-on in a way no other preeminent law enforcement official or political leader has done in recent history.
Holder has used his powerful office as a platform to educate those who are reluctant to accept the fundamental truth that we are a nation still in transition seeking to make whole wounds from a sordid past. Wounds that have created two Americas. Wounds that open up whenever a Ferguson takes place.
And in doing so he has faced his critics, incensed by his audacity to abandon political expediency in interpreting the law, and instead stand on the letter of the law. Even as some of his critics, whether in orchestrated public relations driven congressional hearings or in right wing attacks and smear campaigns, think to themselves “crucify him, crucify him!” and venomously attack his credibility, Holder, has not relented as the first African American enforcer of the law.
How ironic that the man the right wing and some congressional leaders would want to crucify after repeated failed attempts to smear his character, Holder is made to bear his own cross as attorney general. To be precise, he has more painfully borne the cross of standing for equality as attorney general than any other we know of in history.
But to understand Holder is to know his roots in the struggle for human and civil rights and his penchant for affirming the dignity of Black students by leading sit-ins at Columbia Law School in the 1970s
“It is an honor to be back at Columbia Law School, although it’s something of a miracle that I ever got into this esteemed school in the first place. During my undergraduate years here in Morningside Heights, I was one of many students on this campus who felt strongly about, well, nearly everything. It was the ’70s. During my senior year, several of us took one of our concerns — that Black students needed a designated space to gather on campus — to the dean’s office. This being Columbia, we proceeded to occupy that office,” Holder said in his 2010 commencement address at Columbia Law School.
Since his appointment in 2009, Holder has been firm in upholding the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities. We became more aware of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division under Holder than any of his predecessors in recent memory.
Unlike other federal bureaucratic agencies, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ did not get lost in bureacracy. Instead, it was crisscrossing the nation targeting violators of voting rights. Under Holder we saw the Civil Rights Division become a crusader for justice with officials demonstrating publicly their concern for voting rights violations and working to address it.
“In the last eight years, vital federal laws designed to protect rights in the workplace, the housing market and the voting booth have languished. Improper political hiring has undermined this important mission. That must change. And I intend to make this a priority as attorney general,” Holder said at his confirmation hearing.
His voting rights battles spread across the country from Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin to Ohio where he vowed to ensure that the rights of Blacks and other minorities were protected, even as the U.S. Supreme Court struck a provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. When a federal court ruled against Texas’ voter identification laws, Holder responded to the ruling.
“We are extremely heartened by the court’s decision, which affirms our position that the Texas voter identification law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise,” Holder said.
“Even after the Voting Rights Act was seriously eroded last year, we vowed to continue enforcing the remaining portions of that statute as aggressively as possible. This ruling is an important vindication of those efforts.”
The attorney general said, “We are also pleased that the Supreme Court has refused to allow Wisconsin to implement its own restrictive voter identification law. This department will never yield in its commitment to protecting that most sacred of Americans’ rights — the right to vote.”
On criminal justice reform, Holder remained a force to be reckoned with as the incidents in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland where African American males died at the hands of police, shocked the nation.
He visited Ferguson and met with the community even as his critics denounced him.
“Michael Brown’s death was a tragedy. This incident has sparked a national conversation about the need to ensure confidence between law enforcement and the communities they protect and serve. While constructive efforts are under way in Ferguson and communities nationwide, far more must be done to create enduring trust,” Holder said.
Aside from voting rights and police reform, Holder has been smart on the DOJ’s Smart on Crime initiative which effectively changed DOJ policy to focus resources on violent offenders and to improve fairness.
“The new policy directs prosecutors to refrain from filing drug charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences unless the offender has engaged in violence or has significant ties to large-scale drug trafficking organizations. One goal of Smart on Crime is to address the over-incarceration problem by reducing lengthy sentences for low-level drug offenders, who are disproportionally people of color. We are implementing the policy in Michigan,” said Barbara McQuade, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
“Smart on Crime also has a clemency initiative that invites individuals who were sentenced to lengthy mandatory minimum terms to seek to reduce their sentences to the term they would receive today if charged under the new policy.”
And Holder’s Smart on Crime policy is now addressing what advocates have long fought for — treatment and diversion of low-level drug offenders rather than incarceration.
“In Detroit, we routinely meet with returning citizens to provide them with information about the consequences of new criminal conduct and the services that are available to assist them,” McQuade said.
On police misconduct, McQuade, who is a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Council, a group of U.S. attorneys who meet monthly in Washington with Holder, noted, “The Civil Rights Division has encouraged a more qualitative focus, including community meetings by DPD to build trust.”
As a result of the resolution, DPD, which was under Justice Department monitor, “is no longer engaging in the unconstitutional police practices that led to the initial complaint — high volume of fatal shootings by DPD officers, arrest and detention of witnesses without warrants or probably cause, and deplorable conditions of confinement.
“In fact, as a result of the consent decree, DPD improved a number of other areas as well, such as management oversight, in-car cameras, and timely resolution of citizen complaints.”
Holder created a Racial Disparities Working Group to study racial disparities in sentencing and to recommend solutions.
At every level Holder demonstrated an understanding of the events that shaped history as well as the symbolism, power and pragmatism of his role as AG. Speaking in Memphis Tuesday about President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, he put in context the battle for equal rights.
“Over the centuries, Memphis has undergone a remarkable series of transformations — from a hub in the immoral slave trade, helping to fuel a 19th-century economy founded on oppression and built on the backs of those our nation held in chains; to a diverse, inclusive, and thriving urban center — known for its legendary music, vibrant, wonderful culture and even better barbecue,” Holder said.
“It was here, in 1968, that sanitation workers went on strike to call for higher wages, and to protest discrimination and dangerous working conditions. It was here, at the Mason Temple not far from where we now stand, that Dr. King famously declared that “something is happening in Memphis, something is happening with our world.”
“It was in that very same speech that he told us he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land. And it was here, of course — the very next day, at the Lorraine Motel that’s now a museum to the cause he championed, and the work we all must continue – that Dr. King was taken from us, far before his time,” Holder continued.
McQuade said, “I have been honored to work in the Department of Justice under the leadership of Attorney General Holder.
“He has worked tirelessly to bring justice to individuals in our society for whom justice has been denied for too long. He cares deeply about protecting our most vulnerable residents and ensuring the full protection of the laws for the disadvantaged.”
This is why Holder is the most consequential attorney general in our era.