WASHINGTON — He was the most outspoken official of Barack Obama’s administration on issues of race and civil rights and the one rolled out by the White House to defend targeted drone strikes on overseas Americans suspected of terrorism. At the same time, he was a lightning rod for hate for many on the political right — held in criminal contempt by a GOP-controlled House that longed for his ouster.
As Attorney General Eric Holder prepares to leave his post atop the Justice Department by the end of the year, he leaves a legacy as expansive and trailblazing as it is controversial.
In a sign of how polarizing a figure he came to be in his nearly six years as the leading law enforcement official in the country, news of his imminent departure was met with both sadness and scorn.
When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced Holder would be leaving in the coming months at an event held as part of the Congressional Black Caucus’s annual legislative conference, there were audible gasps among the members.
“That is so bad. That is terrible. Why?” civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. could be heard saying, responding to the news.
Lewis later said in a statement, “He has been a persistent and consistent leader in the struggle for civil and human rights. That legacy is in his bones. It is written on his heart, and his intelligence and committed leadership will be hard to replace.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, who frequently tangled with Holder in heated confrontations as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, struck a markedly different tone.
"Eric Holder is the most divisive U.S. attorney general in modern history and, in a vote supported by 17 Democratic House members, has the dubious historic distinction of being the first attorney general held in criminal contempt by the U.S. House of Representatives,” Issa said in a statement. “By needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement, Attorney General Holder's legacy has eroded more confidence in our legal system than any attorney general before him.”
Holder, the first African-American attorney general, was aggressive in reinvigorating the civil rights division of the Justice Department and frequently waded into racially charged issues. He aggressively moved to beat back the wave of restrictive voter laws in the courts. He condemned mass incarceration in the United States as a moral and economic crisis, spearheading initiatives to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws that disproportionately affected black Americans and to grant clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. And he was the emissary the White House chose to send to Ferguson, Missouri, to calm tensions in the aftermath of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.
“He’s an African American man and he has lived that experience and also has insight of the problems of race and the justice system,” said William Yeomans, a 26-year veteran of the Justice Department and now a fellow in law and government at American University. “He’s in a uniquely strong position to speak to those issues.”
Holder also appeared to be willing to embrace the role of a black leader, speaking candidly on issues of race and justice in a way that Obama has shirked throughout his presidency.
In 2009, shortly after being appointed to the job, Holder said in a speech about black history month, “In things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
Later, when referring to his and President Obama’s treatment by congressional Republicans, he said pointedly, “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”
James Johnson, an attorney and board member of the civil rights advocacy organization Brennan Center for Justice, who has known and worked with Holder for years, said the attorney general has always tried to remember the human lives behind every difficult law enforcement decision.
“Eric had a strong voice and a moral voice that I think he made heard within the department and within the nation as a whole,” he said. “He brings a tremendous amount of humanity to his work. It was fairly clear that in addition to the technical aspects of the law and managing the department, he wanted to solve problems and wanted to remember the human faces and the consequences of his actions.”
The attorney general counts among his proudest accomplishments the decision not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act and the multibillion-dollar settlements with financial institutions for their role in precipitating the financial crisis, friends and former associates said.
But for all the praise he garnered as a trailblazer, restoring trust after the Justice Department weathered the scandals of George W. Bush’s administration, Holder also had fierce critics. He earned the ire of civil libertarians in aggressively pursuing investigations about national security leaks, seizing reporters’ phone logs and prosecuting more government leakers under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined. In addition, he could not fulfill the Obama administration promise of closing Guantánamo Bay, the detention facility for terrorism suspects.
“Those are tough issues, and there will be disagreements,” Yeomans said. “I don’t agree with every decision he’s made, but I don’t think anybody doubts that it’s been based on a fair, good faith reading of the law.”
For a time, Holder became the top target for House Republicans, who lambasted him for his role in a gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious that led to the death of a Border Patrol agent, among other offenses. Holder became the first sitting member of the cabinet to be held in contempt by the House by a vote of 255-67 for refusing to turn over documents related to the sting.
It looked for a time that Holder might resign after Obama’s re-election, but he weathered the crisis. Holders’ defenders insist the controversies were more about partisan politics than the substance of the allegations.
“He weathered it because he’s a big boy, and he knows it’s rough and tumble,” said Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and a friend of Holder. “The people who were hammering him on Fast and Furious had very little interest in formulating policy … They had every interest in political humiliation, and he knew that. It was personally very annoying, but it wasn’t going to deter him.”
Raben added that Holder has taken great pride in his work for the last year, when he was able to refocus on issues he was passionate about as his political opponents moved onto other targets.
Obama is not expected to immediately name a successor, although California Attorney General Kamala Harris, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and Sheldon Whitehouse, a two-term Democratic senator from Rhode Island, are reportedly being considered by the administration.
The new appointee might face an uphill battle in being confirmed by the Senate, particularly if Republicans take over the chamber after the November elections. No matter who is selected next, allies of Holder are hoping that person is able to continue his work.
“We think of this as the end of the administration, but two years is a long time … someone can make a mark,” Yeomans said. “I hope the person the president selects would carry on these very important initiatives, both with regard to civil rights and criminal justice.”