World

Eric Holder, U.S. attorney general, resigning after 6 years

U.S. President Barack Obama is accepting the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder and praising him for his deep commitment to ensuring all Americans receive equal justice under the law.
Attorney General Eric Holder is resigning after six years in President Barack Obama's cabinet. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

U.S. President Barack Obama is accepting the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder and praising him for his deep commitment to ensuring all Americans receive equal justice under the law.

The president said during an East Room ceremony that it was a "bittersweet moment" to accept Holder's resignation after six years on the job. But he added that he was glad Holder would stay on until a successor is confirmed.

Obama praised Holder for his track record in a variety of areas, especially for reinvigorating the defence of civil rights.

Holder, for his part, said he was proud of what the department had accomplished but said that work remains to be done.

White House officials said Obama had not made a final decision on a replacement for Holder, who was one of the most progressive voices in his Cabinet. A Justice Department official said Holder finalized his plans in a meeting with the president over the Labor Day weekend.

Some possible candidates who have been discussed among administration officials include Solicitor General Don Verrilli, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general.
Attorney General Eric Holder went to Ferguson, Mo., in August following days of violent protests in the wake of the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown. His department launched civil rights investigations into the incident. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Holder, a 63-year-old former judge and prosecutor, took office in early 2009 as the U.S. government grappled with the worst financial crisis in decades and with divisive questions on the handling of captured terrorism suspects, issues that helped shape his tenure as the country's top law enforcement official. He is the fourth-longest serving attorney general in U.S. history.

He also took on questions of racial fairness, working to improve police relations with minorities, enforce civil rights laws and remove disparities in sentencing. Most recently he became the Obama administration's point man in the federal response to the police shooting last month of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. In the shooting's aftermath, he enlisted a team of criminal justice researchers to study possible racial bias in law enforcement.

Controversies in early years

The news of Holder's resignation came as civil rights leaders and the families of Brown and Eric Garner, who died in a New York City police chokehold this summer, were appearing at a news conference in Washington calling on the Justice Department to take over investigations into the deaths.

The Rev. Al Sharpton urged the White House to meet with civil rights representatives before appointing a replacement. "There has not been an attorney general with a civil rights record equal to Attorney General Eric Holder," Sharpton said.

In his first few years on the job, Holder endured a succession of controversies 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 what was seen as failure to hold banks accountable for the economic near-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 and legal benefits for same-sex couples and pushed for changes to a criminal justice system that he said meted out punishment disproportionately to minorities.

Stung by criticism that the department hadn't been aggressive enough in targeting financial misconduct, Holder in the past year and a half secured criminal guilty pleas from two foreign banks and multibillion-dollar civil settlements with American banks arising from the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. Even then, critics noted that no individuals were held accountable.

A former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, Holder was pulled away from private practice to reshape a Justice Department that had been tarnished by a scandal involving fired U.S. attorneys and that had authorized harsh interrogation methods for terrorism suspects.

Cracked down on media

He immediately signalled a new direction for the incoming administration by declaring that waterboarding was torture, contrary to the George W. Bush administration's insistence that it wasn't.

In the first year of his tenure, Holder was widely criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for his plan to try professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged co-conspirators in New York. The plan was doomed by political opposition to granting civilian criminal trials to terrorist suspects, who arguably would have had greater legal protections in civilian courts than in military commissions.

The attorney general gave up the effort, but he continued to maintain that civilian courts were the most appropriate venue. He argued that his original plan was vindicated by the successful prosecution in New York of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law.

Under his watch, the Justice Department cracked down on news media reporting on national security matters. The department secretly subpoenaed phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors and used a search warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist as part of a separate leak investigation.

On matters of policy, Holder spoke frankly about how his upbringing — his father emigrated from Barbados and his sister-in-law helped integrate the University of Alabama — helped shape his thinking. He referred to America in 2010 as a "nation of cowards" in its discussions of race. He later lamented that "systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now