The Contradictory Legacy of Eric Holder

Holder resign
On September 25, 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announces his resignation as President Obama. Source: abcnews.com, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, September 2014

Eric Holder announced in late September that he would be stepping down from his position as Attorney General. Holder made history as not only the first African American attorney general to serve, but also the third longest serving attorney general in history and the longest standing member of the Obama administration. While Holder made strides for some of the nation’s most pressing legal issues, Eric Holder’s legacy of huge civil rights victories has been juxtaposed with political moves that have made both sides of the political spectrum question his judgment. It is because of this contrary dynamic that his legacy will be remembered as one that was adequate, but not a success; Eric Holder was Attorney General in a time that called for change, yet his actions contradicted each other across many different policy areas.

First of all, Holder was very non-committal about the stance of the Justice Department and its duties. For example, Holder decided not to defend DOMA when the case was brought before the Supreme Court. But initially, he maintained that while the Obama Administration disagreed with the law, it was solely the Justice Department’s responsibilities to defend the laws that Congress had passed.

But as public backlash increased against this sentiment, Holder’s analysis changed. Later that year, he announced that the Justice Department would no longer defend components of the statute because DOMA “contained expressions of moral disapproval of gay and lesbian lifestyles, which violated the stereotyped thinking that the Equal Protection Clause was supposed to protect against.” This was one of the first examples of Holder’s conciliatory attitude when it came to human rights issues. By choosing to initially endorse neutrality on the issue of gay marriage for the sake of maintaining the political diplomacy of the Obama administration, Holder undermined his ability to make a strong stance for important human rights issues.

This flippant attitude continued with the issue of Guantanamo Bay. Holder moved to publicize “torture memos” from the Bush administration that sanctioned specific acts of torture, including waterboarding, for CIA use against al-Qaeda suspects. While there was a clear human rights violation that could have been tried in court, Holder released the documents, and yet he never brought criminal charges against the government officials suspected in over 100 cases of severe prison abuse. This was mainly due to the fact that the Obama Administration was still utilizing the services at Guantanamo Bay and Holder couldn’t make a strong stance on the human rights abuses surrounding torture without undermining his own Administration, once again demonstrating a contradictory course of action that was ineffective at creating change.

Even outside of the realm of human rights, Holder continued to contradict himself with regard to prosecuting financial crimes. Although he spoke out openly against those on Wall Street responsible for the financial crisis, Holder was extremely lax on investigating and prosecuting the financial crimes that were committed and led to the 2007 recession. Few Wall Street firms, and even fewer senior financial executives, were officially charged with breaking the law for conduct related to the crisis, despite the wealth of evidence, prior investigations by state authorities, and probes by Congress and the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. As of 2014, not a single high level executive has been successfully prosecuted in relation to the recent financial crisis; moreover, because criminal provisions such as these are governed by five-year statutes of limitations, it is unlikely that they ever will be. The power of money in politics was so prevalent even in the Obama Administration, an Administration that touted for change, that Holder was once again unable to follow through on his publicly voiced beliefs with action.

If there is one issue that Holder has made a stand for, it has been racial justice. He has fought back against laws that suppressed voting and defended the Voting Rights Act, exhibited federal oversight on stop and frisk policies, and he was one of the first public voices for an investigation following the Ferguson shooting. He was also able to successfully revamp the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and is actively fighting for voting rights. Holder turned around the division (previously used by the Bush Administration as a political tool) by hiring lawyers based on merit rather than ideological beliefs. Furthermore, Holder has filed multiple suits against states like North Carolina and Texas, which have instituted blatantly racist voter ID laws following the Supreme Court repeal on the Voting Rights Act.

Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that many of his decisions and much of his actions were unsuccessful in instituting the change that he promised. Holder was given the opportunity to make enormous changes in his position as Attorney General, but he failed to address and improve a number of policy issues. His contradictory actions are a stain on his legacy because he was the figurehead of justice in America; if his actions are not congruent with his public agenda, it reflects poorly on the validity of the U.S. legal system. As it is, our criminal justice system is in need of serious reform, and it is becoming increasingly critical that there are strong leaders in the Justice Department. So despite his headway for civil rights as the first African American attorney general, Holder’s legacy will be remembered as one with good intentions, but ultimately one that fell short of expectations.