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Holder to resign as attorney general; trumpets progress on gay rights

The former judge and prosecutor has faced successive controversies while in office, on issues from race to press freedom

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that he will be stepping down from his position as head of the Department of Justice following a five-and-a-half year tenure marked by the pursuit for same-sex marriage and voting rights.

At a White House press conference, Holder, listed what he saw as his main achievements. He said he had “fought to protect the most sacred of American rights: the right to vote.” In addition America had “begun to realize the promise of equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters and their families.”  

Referencing his push to reform drug laws and concerns over an increasingly militarized police force, Holder continued: “We have begun to significantly reform our criminal justice system and reconnect those who bravely serve in law enforcement with the communities they protect.”

Praising Holder, President Barack Obama noted that under his tenure, crime and incarceration were both down for the first time in 40 years.

The press conference confirmed a story that had circulated earlier in the day regarding Holder's resignation. The attorney general had been "adamant" about wanting to leave as soon as possible, fearing he could wind up stuck at the DOJ until the end of Barack Obama's term in 2017, according to National Public Radio, which broke the story. He will continue to handle his responsibilities while the White House searches for someone to fill the position.

Administration officials have considered a range of replacements, including Solicitor General Don Verrilli, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general.

Holder, 63, a former judge and prosecutor, took office in early 2009 as the U.S. government grappled with the worst financial crisis in decades. Over the next five years, he navigated a difficult political landscape, wrestling with questions of race, civil rights, press freedom and how to properly prosecute alleged members of Al-Qaeda captured abroad or held at Guantánamo Bay.

In his first few years on the job, Holder endured a succession of firestorms over, among other things, an ultimately abandoned plan to try terrorism suspects in New York City, a botched gun-running probe along the Southwest border that prompted Republican calls for his resignation and a perceived failure to hold banks accountable for the economic meltdown.

But he stayed on after Obama won re-election, turning in his final stretch to issues that he said were personally important to him. He promoted voting rights after challenges to the Voting Rights Act and supported legal benefits for same-sex couples.

In a recent high-profile trip, Holder arrived in Ferguson, Missouri, days after the deadly shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer enveloped the town in unrest. Civil rights advocates blame the clashes on heavy-handed law enforcement tactics by a militarized police force. Holder has suggested that the Department of Defense practice of supplying police with such military surplus be reconsidered.

He also pushed for changes to the criminal justice system, which he said meted out punishment disproportionately to minorities in the form of harsh sentencing practices for nonviolent drug offenses.

Holder and Obama successfully promoted an effort to expand drug clemency for low-level offenders. The drive will dramatically reduce the nation’s swelling prison population and “ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens,” Holder said in a video message in April 2014.

Justice reform advocates have long criticized a federal system that hands out harsher punishment for crack cocaine offenses than for those involving the powder form of the drug. These policies, they say, have unfairly hit minorities.

Holder has won praise among drug policy advocates for allowing Colorado and Washington state to experiment with the legalization of recreational marijuana use, despite a federal ban on the drug.

He will be remembered for maintaining a hard line on the prosecution of federal government insiders who leaked information to the press. The DOJ’s vigor in these investigations ensnared journalists, whom Holder's office has pressured to reveal the identities of their sources or face being held in contempt of court, including the Associated Press and author James Risen, who have defied DOJ demands.

Controversy surrounded Holder’s role in overseeing the execution by aerial drone of an American citizen in Yemen, Ayman al-Awlaki, who officials said was plotting against the U.S.

Holder is the first African-American U.S. attorney general and has had the fourth longest tenure in the position.

With wire services 

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