From Good to Great

When it came to civil rights, Eric Holder was a top-notch attorney general. Too bad he didn’t serve in a less partisan moment.

US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. listens to question during a press conference at the Department of Justice .
To think, what could have been …

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner joined with the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Action Network, the National Bar Association, and the Black Women’s Roundtable to call for a full federal investigation in the police killings of the two young men.

The Rev. Al Sharpton was part of the event, and he was about to take questions from those assembled when the news broke that Attorney General Eric Holder intended to resign from the administration. Naturally, Sharpton had a few words for the occasion.

“There is no attorney general who has shown a commitment to civil rights like Eric Holder,” said Sharpton, “If he is resigning, the civil rights community is losing the most effective civil rights attorney general in American history.”

That is high praise, but it’s hard to say it’s unreasonable or unjustified. When President Obama entered office, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was in shambles, neglected by President Bush and staffed with a coterie of partisan operatives. Long-serving lawyers left the office, case files were closed with little explanation, political appointees sought to block liberals from career positions, and anti-discrimination efforts were few and far between.

At his confirmation hearing at the beginning of Obama’s term, Holder made the Civil Rights Division his priority, telling the Senate, “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.”

To that end, Holder took aggressive steps to repair the damage of the previous administration and restore the traditional priorities of the Civil Rights Division. On voting rights, Holder was a strong advocate against voter identification laws, attacking the 2012 Texas law as a “political pretext to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right” and comparing some practices to Jim Crow laws. “Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them—and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them. We call those poll taxes,” he said.

After the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act—the strongest push in a broad rear-guard action against voting rights and access—Holder pledged to do everything possible to defend the VRA from further encroachment. He kept his word. Under a provision of the VRA that allows states to be brought under new federal scrutiny if violations of the 14th or 15th Amendment have occurred, the Department of Justice sued North Carolina and Texas over their controversial voter ID laws. Likewise, this year, it joined lawsuits against similar voting laws in Ohio and Wisconsin.

Holder took the lead in other civil rights areas. Under his tenure the Department of Justice has opened 20 investigations into police departments across the country. As Nicole Flatow and Ian Millhiser note for ThinkProgress, these investigations have ended with “scathing findings of police brutality, abuse of the mentally ill, and excessive deadly force, and agreements known as consent decrees that bind cities to federal monitoring and other reforms.”

Indeed, these investigations were one reason for Thursday’s press conference with Sharpton and others. This summer the Justice Department turned its attention to Ferguson, Missouri, where racial bias formed the backdrop for protests in the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. In their plea for more federal involvement, the Brown and Garner families approached Holder as an ally to push, not an adversary to convince.

Other parts of Holder’s civil rights record are mixed. In his early years as attorney general, he increased prosecution of marijuana dispensaries and refused to reschedule the drug from its current classification, where it sits with heroin and LSD. At the same time, however, Holder pushed for retroactive enforcement of the Fair Sentencing Act—which narrowed the crack cocaine sentencing disparity tenfold—and has refrained from challenging the marijuana legalization experiments in Colorado and Washington.

He’s backed away from mandatory drug sentences, ensuring that federal prosecutors avoid the draconian punishments of the last few decades. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” he said. “It imposes a significant economic burden—totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone—and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.” Indeed, Holder has supported a change from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that would shorten incarceration for thousands of nonviolent inmates and keep many more people out of prison for long periods. More broadly, he’s criticized the “school-to-prison pipeline”—threatening lawsuits for schools that use criminal punishments for routine misbehavior.

Holder has also been a rhetorical foil to the calm and conciliatory President Obama, voicing anger and indignation on racism and racial injustice. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” he said in 2009.

Likewise, in a commencement address earlier this year, he gave direct rebuke to conservative claims that race had diminished in American public life. “Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether,” he said. “This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn’t need to be actively confronted.” For Holder, that was nonsense. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” he continued, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.” As I argued in May, Holder was the “anger translator” for a president constrained from blunt talk on race.

Now, Holder’s tenure wasn’t perfect, and as Eric Posner notes for Slate, there are areas of real disappointment. Not only did Holder give legal support to the administration’s policy of targeted killings, but his Justice Department has “enthusiastically defended the state secrets privilege,” used surveillance on journalists, and prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks than all of his predecessors combined. Moreover, to the chagrin of many on the left, Holder’s Justice Department has done little to punish the banks and bankers responsible for the financial crisis. For as much as Holder wants to leave a legacy as a civil rights attorney general, there’s a chance he’ll be remembered instead for his missteps and conspicuous omissions.

With that said, I don’t think that’s likely. In his five years as attorney general, Holder has held the line against new efforts to gut civil rights laws and restrict the franchise. And he’s done so in the face of tremendous opposition from conservatives, who approached him with fierce loathing. In a first for a sitting Cabinet member, he was held in contempt by the House Republican majority, and he’s been denounced as a “menace to the rule of law,” who “stok[ed] racial division” and “turned the power of the Justice Department into a racially motivated turnout machine for the Democratic Party.” It’s possible that with less acrimonious politics, Holder—like his boss, Barack Obama—would have been more successful.

All of which is to say this: Unlike Al Sharpton, I’m not sure that Eric Holder was “the most effective civil rights attorney general in American history.” But he was a very good one, and given the times, that’s just as vital.