Bill Press: Holder’s mixed legacy

Bill Press: Holder’s mixed legacy
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Reaction to news of Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderState courts become battlegrounds in redistricting fights New Hampshire Republicans advance map with substantially redrawn districts Michigan redistricting spat exposes competing interests in Democratic coalition MORE’s resignation has ranged from saintly to diabolical. Civil rights leaders praised him as the strongest attorney general since Bobby Kennedy. Fox News derided him as the nation’s worst attorney general, leaving behind a “trail of scandals.” Can’t we all agree that Holder’s legacy lies somewhere in between?

As the first African-American to serve as attorney general, Holder was bound to make history, and he has. He’s been fearless on civil rights, especially after the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act, suing North Carolina and Texas for their discriminatory voter ID requirements. From the beginning, he fought head-on against a criminal justice system that is weighted disproportionately against minorities.

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Holder made headlines, when he went to Ferguson, Mo. But that was not the first local police department he’s investigated for racial profiling. He’s also been successful in reducing lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent crimes. And when Colorado and Washington state voters approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, an enlightened Holder agreed to look the other way and let states experiment with drug policy, even though federal law remains stuck in the past. 

On gay rights, Holder again broke new ground. In 2011, he announced the Justice Department would no longer defend the so-called Defense of Marriage Act —President Obama himself was still “evolving” on the issue of same-sex marriage at this time, and it was two years before the Supreme Court would invalidate most of DOMA. Since then, almost two dozen states have recognized marriage equality.

For Holder, that’s a record to be proud of. Unfortunately, it’s marred by inaction or wrong actions on several other important issues. It was Holder who rebuffed entreaties by Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and others to investigate possible war crimes by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And it was Holder who refused to file charges against CIA operatives clearly guilty of war crimes in running Bush’s torture chambers.

Holder also angered both Democrats and Republicans by letting Wall Street titans off the hook, after they brought this nation to the brink of financial ruin by knowingly selling fraudulent securities. He did not prosecute one single banker or firm in connection with the 2008 recession. Why? Because, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, some of these firms were so big that bringing criminal charges against them might have “a negative impact on the national economy.” In other words, noted Elizabeth Warren, now Massachusetts senator, they were “too big to jail.” 

Ironically, while Holder scored on the civil rights front, he failed on the civil liberties front. His Justice Department authorized the use of drones to kill American citizens on foreign soil, without a fair trial. His department defended the National Security Agency’s wholesale collection of phone data on millions of Americans accused of no crime. And Holder has invoked the Espionage Act against government leakers and journalists more times than all prior administrations combined. Charges against reporter James Risen are still pending.

At best, Holder’s record is a mixed bag — and, overall, a big disappointment.

Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.