Below is my column on the resignation of Eric Holder as United States Attorney General. For civil libertarians, Holder’s tenure as Attorney General under President Obama has been one of the most damaging periods in our history with a comprehensive attack on various constitutional rights and principles from free speech to the free press to international law. In recent polling by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, Holder was the second most unpopular government official after the positively radioactive Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
As someone who previously called for Holder’s firing after the investigation of various journalists under national security powers, I am hardly one who can offer congratulatory sentiments for such a record. However, much like President Obama, one has to wonder what could have been if Holder had chosen a more principled and less political approach to his office. Holder is resigning the same week that a federal judge ordered the release of “Fast and Furious” documents after the Justice Department was accused of a pattern of delay and obstruction. Holder was previously held in contempt by Congress for his withholding documents and conflicting accounts to an oversight committee looking into the scandal. Indeed, Holder was looking at an even more aggressive period with the possible loss of the Senate and increased GOP seats in the House.
Ironically, Holder came into office trying to distinguish himself from such disastrous predecessors as Alberto Gonzales but proved no less political or blindly loyal to his own president. Indeed, both men fought aggressively to expand the powers of the presidency and national security laws over countervailing individual rights and separation of powers principles. It will be civil liberties and not civil rights that will be the lasting, and troubling, legacy of Eric Holder. The column is below:
The resignation of Eric Holder as attorney general is an unavoidably symbolic moment for an administration that itself appears to be waning in the final years of a troubled second term. Holder truly personifies an administration of unrivaled ambitions colliding with inescapable realities.
He proved a fierce friend to President Obama, and that loyalty might have worked to the disadvantage of both men. After a series of major court defeats and public controversies, Obama (like President Bush before him) might have been served better by an attorney general who was more detached from him and more attached to the constitutional principles that shape both their offices.
Holder has secured a well-earned position for himself in history as the nation’s first black U.S. attorney general. He is by any means an American success story. The son of a father born in Barbados and raised in New York, Holder used his considerable intellect to go to Columbia University for both college and law school. He was made a judge on the local D.C. court by President Reagan and was appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia by President Clinton, who later made him deputy attorney general.
Holder’s life should be both an inspiration and a cautionary tale for young lawyers. As he ascended into power, Holder became increasingly viewed by critics as a bit too ambitious and political within the Justice Department. That reputation was reaffirmed for many with Clinton’s last-minute pardon of fugitive and major Democratic donor Marc Rich. By any objective measure, Rich was one of the least deserving pardon applicants in history — with 65 criminal counts, from tax evasion to wire fraud to racketeering to illegal trades with Iran. While his companies later pleaded guilty to 35 criminal counts, Rich fled to live the good life in Switzerland. Besides a long list of alleged felonies, Rich had a long list of friends close to Clinton … and Clinton in turn had Eric Holder.
Holder was accused of short-cutting the normal procedures to push through the pardon for Rich. Though he said he was “neutral” on the pardon (which itself is a bit shocking), former FBI director Louis Freeh said the Clinton White House had “used” Holder to keep the FBI and the DOJ from being heard on the pardon.
In his confirmation hearing, Holder promised not to have a repeatof the Rich scandal and not to allow politics to influence his decisions. It was a defining moment and one that Holder would have been wise to work to live up to.
But it did not take long for Holder’s inspiring “Mr. Smith comes to Washington” story to become “all the king’s men.” When the president was confronted with demands to investigate and prosecute individuals for torture under the Bush administration, Holder faced an early test of principle. He failed. The Justice Department blocked any prosecution despite our obligation under international treaties and the president’s (and Holder’s) acknowledgment that waterboarding is clearly a form of torture.
To quote Jerry Maguire, Obama had Holder at “hello” in seeking unbridled presidential authority. Many of the cases that Holder brought and policies that he supported resulted in startling defeats. He lost a series of criminal cases seeking massive reductions in privacy and due process protections for citizens. He unwisely pursued cases such as Canning, where a unanimous Supreme Court curtailed the powers of the president to make recess appointments.
Holder personally announced Obama’s “kill list” policy, in which the president claimed the right to kill any U.S. citizen on his sole authority without a charge, let alone a conviction. Holder’s department used the controversial Espionage Act of 1917 to bring twice the number of such prosecutions of all prior presidents under the Act. Journalists were placed under surveillance in a record that rivaled that of President Nixon. Holder led an appalling crackdown on whistle-blowers. Holder fought to justify massive warrantless surveillance and unchecked presidential authority to attack other countries without congressional approval.
Holder’s continual confrontations with Congress came to a head in a series of scandals, including the “Fast and Furious” controversy in which the government allowed drug gangs to get high-powered weapons in a truly moronic “gun walking” program. In that and other scandals, the administration withheld documents and key witnesses from oversight committees. Holder was wrong and was ultimately held in contempt of Congress.
While Holder can be credited with not shying away from our race conflicts, his actions such as intervening in the Zimmerman case (after the shooting of Trayvon Martin) and the recent Ferguson shooting were viewed by many as premature. His calling the United States a “nation of cowards” on race was a brave but also a divisive moment. In the end, however, his positive work in the area of civil rights will ultimately be eclipsed by his destructive legacy in the area of civil liberties and constitutional government.
The sad truth is that Holder could have been truly great — not simply as the first black attorney general but as a man of principle who stood with the law over politics and friendship. In one of the great lost opportunities in history, Holder will finish his tenure as he began it: a man with great but still unrealized potential.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors.