Attorney General Eric Holder has been building an enduring legacy on civil rights, aggressively pursuing cases and action even as Congress or the courts appeared to stand in the way.
After some early setbacks, Holder appears to have gotten a second wind in his pursuit of issues that have been a priority since he was appointed to the post.
Holder may be better known to many Americans as a beleaguered witness in congressional hearing rooms, fielding question after question on topics from the IRS targeting of conservative groups to national security leaks. But new developments and a ticking clock on his tenure have led to a series of Justice Department initiatives long-backed by the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
His announcement Monday of reforms to sentencing for drug offenses – which proponents say would help to even out disproportionate incarceration rates in minority and poor communities – is the latest in a string of Holder’s actions to bolster the department’s involvement in civil rights issues, from employment and housing to marriage and the ballot box.
“Most of the energy and the political attention at DOJ is around questions of national security – Guantanamo, NSA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But civil rights, and the invigoration of that division, is the quiet consistent engine that keeps on chugging in this administration,” said Robert Raben, a former Holder colleague who served as an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration.
That focus has been on full display in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, which required that some states receive federal approval before changing election laws.
In response, Holder’s Justice Department has aggressively challenged a South Carolina voter ID law as well as a Texas redistricting plan that critics say would effectively dilute huge increases in the state’s Latino population. The planned Texas suit drew a scathing rebuke from Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who derided Holder’s “utter contempt for our country's system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution.”
But those challenges come as no surprise to close watchers of the attorney general. Holder laid the groundwork for the voting rights push more than a year before, saying in a 2011 speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin that the pre-clearance requirement is still all too necessary.
“The reality is that in jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common," he said at the time.
Allies also point to other examples of Holder’s focus on equal rights and fairness, like the decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act nearly two years before the Supreme Court found the law denying federal benefits to same-sex spouses unconstitutional.
He has waded into deeply controversial criminal cases as well.
In the wake of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case acquitting George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter, Holder offered strident criticism of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which he said “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense.”
Holder’s ascension to the top job came after a career entrenched in the justice system – as a prosecutor and as a federal judge. He broke barriers along the way, becoming the first African-American deputy attorney general in 1997 and then the first African-American attorney general in 2009.
And he has not been shy about confronting issues of race head on, from sharing personal stories about a conversation with his young son after Martin’s death to batting back at claims that his department failed to appropriately prosecute members of the New Black Panthers for alleged voter intimidation.
The challenges faced by African-Americans during the civil rights movement are very personal to Holder; as he has told members of Congress, his sister-in-law Vivian Malone Jones was among the students who integrated the University of Alabama in 1963 after Gov. George Wallace stood with state troopers to bar the door to the school’s Foster Auditorium.
“So many of the issues the department deals with are bound up in race, so it is inevitably something that he’s had to deal with,” said former Holder aide Matt Miller. “He has never been afraid to talk about race or to question the impact of race in criminal justice matters.”
Still, much of Holder’s tenure has been rocky, marked by bitter disputes with Congress over the prosecution of terror suspects, border security and drug cartels, and controversial DOJ investigations into leaks of classified information to reporters.
He disagreed openly with Congress after the Obama administration was forced to scrap plans to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers and 2012 hopefuls called for Holder’s resignation over the botched “Fast and Furious” gunwalking operation. (A Sept. 2012 report from the Justice Department’s inspector general cleared Holder of any wrongdoing in the Fast and Furious matter but recommended 14 DOJ and ATF officials for disciplinary action.)
At the height of those clashes, the House of Representatives voted last June to hold Holder in contempt – the first time in U.S. history that Congress has taken such action against the head of the Justice Department.
Miller, the former aide to Holder, says that Holder – whose DOJ career began when he clerked for the department’s Criminal Division during law school – always expected to be under the spotlight while holding the job that made Janet Reno, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales into frequent headline fodder.
“It was always going to be a controversial job,” Miller said. “But his take has always been that when controversy comes about, deal with the controversy as it comes but keep the long view and focus on what the Department needs to do to have a lasting impact.”
The time to make that impact may be drawing to a close. It’s unclear how long Holder will remain at the helm of the department, although observers expect that he will step down in the next year. Only two attorneys general – including Holder’s Democratic predecessor Janet Reno – have remained in the job for two full presidential terms.
Friends say that Holder’s recent stances put an exclamation point on a long and often grueling career.
“He has reached a point in his career where he’s able to look at hard and complicated facts – whether its incarceration, police-community relationships, race relationships or national security and say ‘what’s the right thing to do?’” Raben said. “And he’s got a thick enough skin that he can take the legitimate and the illegitimate criticism and pursue what he thinks is right.”
NBC's Pete Williams contributed to this report.
First published August 13 2013, 1:47 AM