Attorney General-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. was described as a dream nominee - and that was by a newspaper commentator who opposes Holder's selection by President-elect Barack Obama. In fact, almost every entry on Holder's impressive resume recommends him as the nation's top law-enforcement officer.
Holder, 57, who was the Obama campaign's senior legal adviser, served as deputy attorney general under Janet Reno during the Clinton years.
Before that, Holder earned his stripes as the federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia. He also served as a judge on the district's Superior Court, and started out as a trial attorney for the Justice Department's public-integrity section. With both undergraduate and law degrees from Columbia University, Holder has been a partner in a large Washington firm since leaving the federal government in 2001.
But there is one big blemish. Holder's role in President Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in the final hours of that administration gives critics good reason to second-guess his nomination.
Holder's recommendation to the Clinton White House was "neutral, leaning toward" favorable to the pardon of Rich - whose ex-wife was a big Democratic contributor. Looking back, Holder said he wasn't briefed well enough. But the record shows he was deeply engaged in the process and aware of strong opposition within the Justice Department.
Yet Holder - according to congressional investigators in 2002 - effectively put the department's imprimatur on it. Even so, Reno stands behind Holder, and, ultimately, the unsavory decision to pardon Rich was Clinton's responsibility.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) is right that the pardon should not derail Holder's confirmation, but it must be aired thoroughly.
The Justice Department under Alberto R. Gonzales was buffeted by constitutional and political controversy. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has taken steps to restore ethical standards and launched a probe of nine federal prosecutors' firings in 2006 that the Bush White House has refused to explain.
After Gonzales' tenure as a political hack and enabler for the Bush administration's excessive antiterrorism tactics - including warrantless surveillance and harsh interrogation tactics - Justice needs a straight-arrow leader who can stand up to authority.
Holder must assure the Senate and the American people that he will do just that. As part of that process, he needs to account for lapses during the Rich pardon, where he appears to have been too eager to please a lame-duck White House that, had Democrats retained the presidency, might have furthered his government career.
On civil liberties and the Bush antiterror campaign, at least, Holder has been forthright in saying the secret spying on citizens and torture-like interrogation tactics of terror suspects were "excessive and unlawful." He's also called for finding a way to close the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba, which stands as an affront to the nation's ideal of the rule of law.
Holder has Obama's confidence and support. But he must make clear to the public that his top priority will be to restore confidence in American justice.