Author: Jonathan Loewenberg, Johns Hopkins University
Soon, the Obama Administration will be losing one of its key assets. With the announcement of his resignation, Eric Holder, the first African-American Attorney General of the United States, has triggered limitless speculation about who may become his replacement. With the turbulent state of the Senate ahead of contentious midterm elections, this question will most likely not be answered until after midterms, as the Obama administration has stated on numerous occasions. As one of the longest serving Attorney Generals gets ready to part ways (only formally) with his department, let’s take a look at some of the key issues that have defined his legacy under the Obama Administration.
Holder is often seen as on the more liberal side of law enforcement issues, especially when it comes to imprisonment. This was reflected in the statements he made to the American Bar Association in 2013, in which he bashed our criminal justice system for sending too many Americans to prison for too long for no good law enforcement reason. A central focus of his tenure as Attorney General was steering the country away from mass incarceration, a problem often highlighted by critics of the American criminal justice system.
He has done this via a number of different avenues, some involving departmental reform and others involving legislative policy changes. He has called on state lawmakers to reduce the number of people incarcerated, put his full-fledged support behind Congress in an effort to reduce punitive sentencing, changed the way that people are charged the Justice Department in order to reduce mandatory minimums (a policy which he has called draconian), and established guidelines that allow states to legalize and regulate marijuana with less federal interference.
In addition to these significant steps taken to prevent people from being frivolously put behind bars, he has also taken major steps that focus on prevention of criminal activity and helping to re-integrate former criminals into civilized society. He has advocated for the restoration of voting rights to those who have been previously incarcerated. Additionally, he has worked along interdepartmental lines with the Department of Justice to help get rid of zero-tolerance school policies that perpetuate the “school to prison pipeline.” Holder has also urged first responders to carry the heroin overdose drug naloxone. Efforts like these give him a solid record on criminal justice reform and scaling back the war on drugs.
However, many insist that he has still failed on the actual application of criminal justice. His failure to totally hold large Wall Street financial institution accountable for the 2007-2009 global financial crisis serves as one of the biggest blemishes on an otherwise, for the most part, favorable legacy. While he was able to secure some fairly large settlements from banks through civil suits, he has been unable to successfully criminally prosecute bankers linked to the crisis.
Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan weighed in on the matter in the New York Review of Books and said “Not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis, and given the fact that most of the relevant criminal provisions are governed by a five-year statute of limitations, it appears likely that none will be.” Many have also criticized Holder for his department’s lack of investigation into those purportedly linked with the crisis and see the lack of prosecution as an injustice done to all those hurt by the crisis. Holder, however, has maintained that there are no prosecutable crimes to be pursued against these individuals because of lack of criminal intent.
Nonetheless, a hallmark of Holder’s stint as Attorney General has been his abiding commitment to defending the civil rights and voting rights of minority groups. He has received praise from various African-American community leaders, including the renowned Reverend Al Sharpton, for his unrivaled devotion to this cause. Holder completely reformed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division by making it a top priority and placing qualified lawyers at its helm. His efforts to end mass incarceration and reform our criminal justice system, which many argue has a fair amount of racial bias, can also be seen as an effort to end systematic racial discrimination.
Holder has also combatted discrimination at the polls by bringing several voting rights lawsuits in an effort to end voter ID laws and early voting. Even after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, he continued the agency’s efforts to battle voter discrimination through litigation and requests for federal oversight. Additionally, he has continually openly confronted the issue of race in the public sphere, as he did both in his 2009 speech to the justice department, in which he called America “a nation of cowards” when it comes to addressing racial bias within society, and in his scathing remarks in Ferguson, in which he echoed the same sentiments as in his 2009 speech.
Holder’s defense of civil rights, however, has not been limited to only combatting racial discrimination. He has also fought for the civil rights of the LGBT community and against discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. He decided not to defend DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), as he saw it as contrary to 14th amendment’s equal protection clause. This decision to stop enforcing and recognizing the federal ban on same sex marriages, which was later affirmed by the Supreme Court (U.S. v. Windsor), has opened the way for some of the most sweeping changes in LGBT rights in a new era of inclusion.
Despite his triumphs on civil rights issues, Holder’s record on issues of government transparency and respect for civil liberties remains somewhat inconsistent. He signed off on dragnet mass surveillance programs by the NSA and aggressively sought phone records of journalists that were purported national security leakers. During his tenure the Justice Department also approved of drone strikes on Americans in foreign countries and failed to close Guantanamo Bay in an outright fiasco. Civil liberties advocates suggested that these acts were a trampling of the first and fourth amendments, despite the ever-expanding national security concerns our country faces.
Regardless of the qualms people may have with Holder’s position on certain issues concerning civil liberty and his failure in making sure those linked with the financial crisis were given their full serving of justice, it is important that we remember Holder for some of his historic accomplishments during his time in office. His record on civil rights and reforming the criminal justice system and its institutions is unmatched, both things that had been for the most part neglected by the previous administration.
While Holder may not have induced any revolutionary shifts in law enforcement, he accomplished what he could in a highly partisan and contentious environment. It was in Obama’s second term that he truly staked out his legacy as a civil rights advocate and a lawyer that was there to protect the people. He was certainly the most publicly present Attorney General to date, as he was highly responsive to public sentiment and was constantly present at some of the biggest national events to calm tensions and provide a voice of reason. When I see Holder, I see a man whose legacy doesn’t solely lie in the work he did at his desk. I see a man whose legacy also lies in the people he worked for.