Resurgent Holder pushes agenda

Conservatives hoping to celebrate the departure of Attorney General Eric Holder might be in for a long wait.

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The attorney general’s position has looked perilous at various points during his tenure. But these days, he seems resurgent, pushing states to strike down voting restrictions on ex-felons and fighting hard to restore some of the key powers of the Voting Rights Act.

It has been an uphill climb. In 2012, Holder became the first attorney general to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives while, the year before, he had to retreat from his earlier insistence that suspects in the September 11, 2001 attacks should be tried in criminal court in New York.
 
Holder has been a consistent conservative target throughout his time in office, with issues from the Fast and Furious scandal to his stance on the Voting Rights Act raising the ire of the right. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) has sponsored a resolution in the House with 140 co-sponsors calling for Holder’s immediate resignation.

Critics of Holder were buoyed by a report in the current edition of The New Yorker that suggested Holder was planning to step down this year.

But Justice has pushed back against that characterization, arguing that, when the interview was conducted late last year, Holder was simply saying he had a lot more work to do, not setting a date for his departure.

“The most the attorney general has said is that he still has a lot he wants to accomplish on issues like criminal justice reform, voting rights and LGBT equality. He did not speak about his plans any further than that,” said Justice spokesman Brian Fallon.

Holder’s most high-profile project at the moment is comprised of two separate cases that he is taking against the states of Texas and North Carolina.

In these instances, the Justice Department is arguing that laws pertaining to voter ID and early voting have the effect of disadvantaging minority voters and should be struck down. Most observers see the battle as part of a larger war that pits Holder against a Supreme Court decision last year that gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Also last week, Holder urged states to reinstate the rights of felons to vote in a speech at Georgetown University. The attorney general has no power to change those laws but he was emphatic in his argument.

“This isn’t just about fairness for those who are released from prison,” Holder said. “It’s about who we are as a nation. It’s about confronting, with clear eyes and in frank terms, disparities and divisions that are unworthy of the greatest justice system the world has ever known.”

The speech was just one more negative mark against Holder in conservative eyes.

“That speech showed how political he is,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department official who is now affiliated with the Heritage Foundation and is the co-author of a forthcoming book about Holder’s tenure.

“All he talks about is the restoration of voting rights for felons. What he fails to mention is the fact that you don’t just lose your right to vote. In most states, you lose your rights to own a gun, to sit on a jury, to engage in certain kinds of employment like being a police officer. Nowhere does he say a word about restoring those rights. That tells me he is only interested in the potential votes.”

Responding to the suggestion that the attorney general’s speech on felons’ rights could be seen as an overreach, Nicole Austin-Hillery, head of the Washington office of the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, stressed her backing for Holder.

“He has a bully pulpit and speaking from that bully pulpit is massively important,” she said. “Members of Congress, state leaders, state legislators listen to what the attorney general has to say. The mere fact that he has spoken out can have influence.”

Attorneys general are almost guaranteed to be figures of controversy, given their role in contentious cases with far-reaching implications. Such was the fate of the most senior law officers in administrations stretching from President Nixon (John Mitchell) through President Clinton (Janet Reno) to President George W. Bush (John Ashcroft and, later, Alberto Gonazales).

But even some non-aligned figures see an uncommon stridency in the criticisms of Holder.

“I think he got off to a bad start with Fast and Furious — it was an issue that was poorly handled,” said Brian Landsberg, a constitutional law expert at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. “But I don’t quite understand all of the criticism. I don’t know why the decibel level is as high as it is.”

Landsberg suggested one possible reason could lie in Holder’s perceived closeness to President Obama.

“I think there is a lot of shrill rhetoric regarding the Obama administration in general, and he is seen very much as the president’s man. Attacks on him are in effect an attack on the president.”

Still, for all that, even Holder’s critics are getting used to the likelihood of him sticking around.

“I doubt that the president would want him to leave because he has in many ways acted as a heat shield for the administration” said von Spakovsky. “I can’t imagine what kind of grilling a new nominee would have to take to come in.”