By any measure, the nearly-six-year tenure of Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has been one of the most consequential in United States history. His decision to resign, which he announced on Thursday, was long anticipated; he has said he will stay on through his successor’s confirmation. It is hard to imagine that anyone who could make it through the current Senate would have an impact comparable to Mr. Holder’s.
As the first African-American to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official, Mr. Holder broke ground the moment he took office. In a position that rarely rewards boldness — and in the face of a frequently hostile Congress — Mr. Holder has continued to stake out strong and laudable legal positions on many of the most contested issues of our time. But his record is marred by the role the Justice Department played in matters of secrecy and national security under his leadership.
SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: In 2011, Mr. Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage under federal law as between a man and a woman. The law was unconstitutional, he said. It was a critical moment that foreshadowed both President Obama’s own “evolution” on same-sex marriage the following year and the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling invalidating an important part of the law. Since the court’s decision, nearly two dozen federal courts have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage throughout the country, and the Supreme Court has been asked again to rule on whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage — a question it dodged in 2013.
VOTING RIGHTS: Mr. Holder successfully fought discriminatory voting restrictions around the country before the 2012 elections. When the Supreme Court gutted the core of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, he was quick to find new ways to challenge discriminatory laws. Shortly after the ruling, the Justice Department joined lawsuits challenging new restrictions like strict voter-ID requirements and cutbacks to voting hours in North Carolina and Texas. In both states, Republican-controlled legislatures imposed rules that most heavily burden poorer and minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
“The history of this nation has always been to try to expand the franchise,” Mr. Holder told The New Yorker in February. “We’ve always found ways in which we’ve made the voting process more inclusive. What these folks are intending to do, or certainly the impact of what they’re going to do, is to turn their backs on that history.”
CRIMINAL JUSTICE: From early in the Obama administration’s first term, Mr. Holder made broad criminal-justice reform a central goal of his tenure. “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” he said in a landmark speech last year. He often spoke about the issue in starkly moral terms, no more so than when discussing race. The disproportionately harsh treatment of blacks throughout the criminal justice system, he said, “isn’t just unacceptable; it is shameful.”
Among other things, Mr. Holder strongly supported a 2010 law that eliminated the difference in sentences for crimes involving crack versus powder cocaine. Last year, he ordered federal prosecutors to be more lenient toward low-level drug offenders, and he supported legislation that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes. He has investigated police departments for excessive force — including in Ferguson, Mo. — and fought for more financing for indigent defense services.
In February, he called for the repeal of “profoundly outdated” felon disenfranchisement laws, which, in some states, prevent as many as one in five African-Americans from voting. And, in April, he directed prosecutors to seek out thousands of prisoners to be considered for early release from overlong drug sentences.
While much of Mr. Holder’s legacy rightly will be defined by the improvements he made in areas of civil rights and criminal justice reform, it will also be defined by deeply harmful actions — and failures to act — involving issues of national importance.
Under Mr. Holder, the Justice Department approved the targeted killing of civilians, including Americans, without judicial review, and the Obama administration fought for years to keep the justifications for such efforts secret. In the zeal to stop leaks of government information, Mr. Holder brought more prosecutions under the Espionage Act than during all previous presidencies combined. In tracking the sources of leaks, prosecutors seized phone and email records of journalists who were doing their jobs.
Even as the Justice Department devoted so much misguided energy to preventing leaks, it neglected to prosecute some of the most glaring cases of wrongdoing. Driven by Mr. Obama’s desire to “look forward,” Mr. Holder used claims of government secrecy and immunity to toss out lawsuits seeking accountability for torture and other criminal abuses committed in the war on terror.
On the financial front, he did not prosecute a single prominent banker or firm in connection with the subprime mortgage crisis that nearly destroyed the economy. These are not accomplishments to be proud of.
Of course, Mr. Holder has always served at the pleasure of the president, who has his own policy priorities and political survival to consider. At his best, Mr. Holder stepped up and said things that Mr. Obama could not or would not say. And in wielding the muscle of his office, in a job of exasperating complications and irreconcilable conflicts, Mr. Holder has worked to increase justice for many of America’s most dispossessed or forgotten citizens.
New York Times