By Jamelle Bouie
When President Obama entered office, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was in shambles, neglected by President George W. Bush and staffed with a coterie of partisan operatives. Long-serving lawyers left the office, case files were closed with little explanation, political appointees sought to block liberals from career positions, and anti-discrimination efforts were few and far between.
At his confirmation hearing, Eric Holder said of the Civil Rights Division, "In the last eight years, vital federal laws designed to protect rights in the workplace, the housing market, and the voting booth have languished. Improper political hiring has undermined this important mission. That must change. And I intend to make this a priority as attorney general."
On voting rights, Holder was a strong advocate against voter-identification laws, attacking the 2012 Texas law as a "political pretext to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right" and comparing some practices to Jim Crow laws. "Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them - and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them. We call those poll taxes," he said.
After the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, Holder pledged to do everything possible to defend the VRA from further encroachment. He kept his word. Under a provision of the VRA that allows states to be brought under new federal scrutiny if violations of the 14th or 15th Amendment have occurred, the Department of Justice sued North Carolina and Texas over their controversial voter-ID laws. Likewise, this year, it joined lawsuits against similar voting laws in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Holder took the lead in other civil rights areas. During his tenure, the Department of Justice has opened 20 investigations into police departments across the country. As Nicole Flatow and Ian Millhiser note for ThinkProgress, these investigations have ended with "scathing findings of police brutality, abuse of the mentally ill, and excessive deadly force, and agreements known as consent decrees that bind cities to federal monitoring and other reforms."
This summer, the Justice Department turned its attention to Ferguson, Mo., where racial bias formed the backdrop for protests in the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. In their plea for more federal involvement, the Brown family and others approached Holder as an ally to push, not an adversary to convince.
Other parts of Holder's record are mixed. In his early years as attorney general, he increased prosecution of marijuana dispensaries and refused to reschedule the drug from its current classification, where it sits with heroin and LSD. At the same time, however, Holder pushed for retroactive enforcement of the Fair Sentencing Act - which narrowed the crack cocaine sentencing disparity tenfold - and has refrained from challenging the marijuana legalization experiments in Colorado and Washington.
He's backed away from mandatory drug sentences, ensuring that federal prosecutors avoid the draconian punishments of the last few decades. "Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable," he said. "It imposes a significant economic burden - totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone - and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate." Indeed, Holder has supported a change from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that would shorten incarceration for thousands of nonviolent inmates and keep many more people out of prison for long periods. More broadly, he's criticized the "school-to-prison pipeline" - threatening lawsuits for schools that use criminal punishments for routine misbehavior.
Holder has also been a rhetorical foil to the calm and conciliatory Obama, voicing anger and indignation on racism and racial injustice. "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," he said in 2009.
Likewise, in a commencement address this year, he rebuked conservative claims that racism had diminished in American public life. "Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether," he said. "This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn't need to be actively confronted." For Holder, that was nonsense. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," he continued, "is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race."
Holder's tenure wasn't perfect. Not only did he give legal support to the administration's policy of targeted killings, but his Justice Department has "enthusiastically defended the state-secrets privilege," used surveillance on journalists, and prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks than all of his predecessors combined. Moreover, Holder has done little to punish the banks and bankers responsible for the financial crisis.
As much as Holder wants to leave a legacy as a civil rights attorney general, there's a chance he'll be remembered instead for his missteps and conspicuous omissions. But I don't think that's likely. In his five years in office, Holder has held the line against efforts to gut civil rights laws and restrict the franchise. And he's done so in the face of tremendous opposition from conservatives, who approached him with fierce loathing. In a first for a sitting cabinet member, he was held in contempt by the House Republican majority, and he's been denounced as a "menace to the rule of law" who "stok[ed] racial division" and "turned the power of the Justice Department into a racially motivated turnout machine for the Democratic Party." It's possible that with less acrimonious politics, Holder - like his boss, Obama - would have been more successful.
All of which is to say this: I'm not sure that Holder was "the most effective civil rights attorney general in American history," as Al Sharpton has said. But he was a very good one, and given the times, that's just as vital.