Eric Holder, the first African-American to serve as attorney general of the United States, announced his resignation on Thursday, after a sometimes-stormy 5-1/2-year tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Mr. Holder is a key adviser to President Obama on matters of race and civil rights, and his legacy will reflect a deep commitment to aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and striving to eliminate racial disparities in criminal sentences.
Holder was also a polarizing figure, attracting criticism for what detractors said was his misuse of the levers of power at the Justice Department to protect the Obama administration and its Democratic allies.
In 2012, Holder became the first attorney general in US history to be held in contempt of Congress for his refusal to release documents related to operation “Fast and Furious,” a bungled gun smuggling investigation on the Mexican border.
But the attorney general also enjoyed his share of victories.
In perhaps the defining moment of his service as attorney general, Holder made a personal trip last month to Ferguson, Mo., amid mounting racial tensions and violent street demonstrations following the shooting death of a black teen by a white police officer.
Holder’s presence in the St. Louis suburb, his compassionate demeanor, and his ability to speak directly to angry members of the African-American community helped bring the demonstrations to a peaceful end.
In comments at the White House, Mr. Obama said Holder throughout his government service had shown a “deep and abiding fidelity to the principle of equal justice under the law.”
He said Holder had been working for decades to “open up the promise of this country” and “to make sure that those words – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – are true for all of us.”
Holder said his resignation came with mixed emotions. He said as a young man he admired how then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy demonstrated how the Justice Department could be “a force for what is right.”
“I hope I have done honor, Mr. President, to the faith you have placed in me,” he said.
Holder’s departure is not surprising. He had told the president of his plans to resign last summer.
Obama did not mention a potential replacement. Holder will continue to serve until a replacement is confirmed by the Senate.
Reaction to Holder’s departure ranged from praise to denunciation.
“When Attorney General Holder took the helm of the Department of Justice in 2009, he vowed to make the civil rights division the department’s ‘crown jewel,’ and he has more than fulfilled that mission,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement.
“When the history of his tenure is written, Eric Holder will ultimately be recognized as one of the finest attorneys general this country has ever known,” she said.
Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, often sparred with Holder over document requests and oversight issues.
He called Holder “the most divisive US attorney general in modern history.”
“Time and time again, Eric Holder administered justice as the political activist he describes himself as instead of an unbiased law enforcement official,” Representative Issa said in a statement.
“By needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement, Attorney General Holder’s legacy has eroded more confidence in the legal system than any attorney general before him,” he said.
He cited government surveillance of news reporters’ phones to identify potential sources of government leaks. He also said the attorney general had blocked access of the Justice Department’s own inspector general to documents. And he said Holder “stonewalled” congressional oversight efforts.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Holder presided over “one of the most forward-thinking and visionary Justice Departments in memory.”
He said Holder’s accomplishments were even more remarkable because he was “victim to an unprecedented witch hunt and abuse of power by House Republicans.”
Holder’s legacy will span the range of his Justice Department authority – from efforts to prosecute terror suspects to providing a major boost to the gay rights movement.
But his most lasting contribution will probably be his focus on race. Shortly after taking office in February 2009, Holder lamented the lack of a genuine effort in the US to address the problems of race. The US was a “nation of cowards” for failing to confront the issue, he said.
As attorney general, Holder played a crucial role in helping beef up the Justice Department’s enforcement of civil rights.
Under Holder, the department adopted an aggressive approach to using the Voting Rights Act to block Republican-passed state laws that required photo ID to vote. Holder called such measures a modern version of a poll tax.
He used this extreme language even though the US Supreme Court had upheld a similar photo ID law. Holder argued that the ID requirement would repress the political clout of poor and minority voters who lack the means to obtain the requisite ID.
In other matters, Holder filed suit in 2010 to block a tough immigration statute passed by lawmakers in Arizona. Under the law, local police were empowered to ask for identification from anyone they had reason to believe was in the US illegally.
Holder said the law could lead to racial profiling. Arizona officials defended the measure, arguing that it was necessary because the federal government was not adequately protecting the state’s border with Mexico.
The case went to the US Supreme Court, which struck down much of the law, but upheld the portion dealing with police stops. Nonetheless, the issue helped motivate Latino voters nationwide in advance of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
In the area of counterterrorism, Holder’s legacy is somewhat mixed. He was unable to make good on Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to close the terror prison camp at Guantánamo.
Although Holder denounced waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques as “torture,” it was his Justice Department that provided Obama with a legal rationale justifying the killing by drone of an American citizen and his son in Yemen after they had been deemed by officials to be a threat to the US.
In other contexts, Holder believes strongly that terror suspects should be brought to justice in civilian federal court, not the special military commissions organized by the Bush administration at Guantánamo.
But Holder’s 2009 plan to bring suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial at the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan had to be rescinded after it met significant opposition by New York officials and members of Congress.
In the area of gay rights, Holder and Obama made a bold decision in 2011 that the administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Both men declared that they believed the law was unconstitutional. DOMA was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court.
Holder later encouraged state attorneys general to take similar action in refusing to defend state constitutional amendments restricting marriage to a union of one man and one woman.
In speaking in support of broad recognition of same-sex marriage and protection of gay rights, Holder said the issue was “a defining civil rights challenge of our time.”