Eric Holder has spent the latter part of his tenure as attorney general focusing on issues of civil rights and social justice, but a large part of his legacy will be the partisan battles he waged with a sharply divided Congress.
Holder often found himself bearing the brunt of Republicans' frustration with President Barack Obama during his six years in the Cabinet. Those battles led to a number of heated exchanges with lawmakers at Congressional hearings and a chorus of calls for his resignation.
But Holder, the country’s first African-American attorney general, proved able to survive the pressure, becoming one of the longest serving members of the Obama administration and a trusted ally of the president.
“I know that some in the Republican party unfortunately used him to go after the president, but I’ve been here throughout a lot of attorneys general and nobody has done it better than he has,” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said on MSNBC Thursday.
Some of Holder's most vocal GOP critics did not hold back from taking a final parting shot at the outgoing official once his resignation was announced Thursday, with Rep. Darrel Issa, R-CA, calling Holder "the most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history."
Along with being the fourth-longest serving U.S. attorney general ever, Holder also has the distinction of being the only sitting Cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress. House Republicans in 2012 voted to hold him in contempt after the Obama administration refused to provide documents related to the Fast and Furious gun trafficking scandal.
Republicans in Congress again called for his resignation in 2013 after the Justice Department subpoenaed Associated Press phone records and investigated Fox News correspondent James Rosen in an attempt to uncover how journalists had obtained national security information.
But unlike some other former members of the Obama cabinet, Holder has been able to ride out the rocky periods and has spent much of the president’s second term focusing on the issues he most wants to be remembered for — civil rights and social justice.
“Eric's proudest achievement, though, might be reinvigorating and restoring the core mission to what he calls ‘the conscience of the building’ — and that's the Civil Rights Division,” Obama said Thursday. “He has been relentless against attacks on the Voting Rights Act — because no citizen, including our service members, should have to jump through hoops to exercise their most fundamental right.”
Holder has spent the past year vigorously combating the new voter identification laws being enacted in some Republican-led state legislatures that Holder says disenfranchise minorities and the elderly.
He has also spent the past year advocating for reform of the criminal justice system to ensure that minorities do not face more severe punishments than whites.
He has slowly won back support from many in the White House whom he initially put on edge in 2009, when he said America is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to dealing with race. Most recently, the president dispatched Holder to Ferguson, Missouri, last month following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager. The Justice Department is now conducting a sweeping investigation into the city’s police force.
Holder also notably advocated that the government stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked the federal recognition of gay marriage. The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the 1996 law last year, a major victory for supporters of same-sex marriage.
“He was a scrupulously good lawyer, but he also had a willingness to be bold and do what he thought was right,” said Andrew Koppelman, a Northwestern University law professor.
In addition to his civil rights record, the 63-year-old former judge and prosecutor will be remembered for the role he played in shaping how the Obama administration has dealt with issues of terrorism and the law. In his first year on the job in 2009, he received heavy blowback for his plan to try Sept. 11 terror suspects in New York. Lawmakers in Washington, New York and some victims’ families slammed the idea of giving civilian trials to alleged terrorists. Ultimately, the cases were sent to military court.
Holder has also spent the end of his tenure working to improve on some of the areas for which he was criticized for at the start of the Obama presidency, like being soft on terrorism and not going after the financial institutions that helped create the recession.
And in the wake of the rising threat of ISIS, Holder announced new steps to help prevent Americans from joining overseas terrorist organizations. Not to mention in his last year on the job he struck multi-billion dollar settlements with banks over the 2008 financial crisis.
“I have loved the Department of Justice ever since, as a young boy, I watched Robert Kennedy prove during the Civil Rights Movement how the department can and must always be a force for that which is right,” Holder said while announcing his resignation. “I hope that I have done honor to the faith that you have placed in me, Mr. President, and to the legacy of all those who have served before me.”