WASHINGTON, D.C. — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. plans to leave his post as soon as a successor is confirmed, White House officials said Thursday.
Holder, who made history by becoming the first African American attorney general, had previously said he planned to leave office by the end of this year.
Particularly in President Obama’s second term, Holder has been the most prominent liberal voice of the administration.
After the recent shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a White police office, Holder volunteered to go to Ferguson, Mo. as the administration’s representative.
A month after Obama sent Holder to Ferguson, the attorney general talked bluntly in a speech at New York University about how “the Bureau of Prisons currently commands about a third of the Justice Department’s overall budget”; how while “the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of its prisoners;” and how “our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities—particularly communities of color.”
Nobody else in the administration, Obama included, has done nearly as much to protect and support the rights of African Americans.
While the president only rarely confronted issues of race and discrimination, Holder emerged as a forceful advocate in those areas. Barack Obama began overlooking structural racism exactly six months into his first term, over a Black professor arrested for “breaking into his own home.” This was the beginning of a pattern for Obama’s increasingly uncomfortable public position on racism.
But it seems that Obama was not ignoring race issues so much as turning them over to Holder, who would then confront the general public. Whatever fight the administration might have conducted on systemic racism would be channeled through him.
As attorney general, he has pushed to change what he sees as fundamental inequities in the criminal justice system. He told prosecutors not to seek long sentences for low-level crime, and he pushed to eliminate those sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. He has joined with liberal Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans to advocate for the most sweeping liberalization of sentencing laws since the beginning of the War on Drugs.
Earlier this week, Holder announced that the federal prison population declined this year for the first time since 1980. He projected the decline would continue for the next two years.
He authorized subpoenas directed at journalists and approved the Central Intelligence Agency’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen working with the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen. Holder signed off on the National Security Agency’s authority to sweep up the phone records of millions of Americans not charged with any crime.
Holder also deserves credit for his self-critique of government racism and for pushing reforms, notably in trying to restore felons’ voting rights, to work with Congress on voter ID understanding, to oppose data-driven sentencing, to reduce sentences for low-level drug offenders, to decriminalize HIV exposure and to direct his Department of Justice to investigate the Ferguson police shooting.
One of the best actions the department has taken under Holder is to reform police departments around the country.
A senior White House official said the president was “a long way” from announcing Holder’s replacement. Now that Holder is stepping down, whatever hope might’ve been left for race issues in the administration is fading fast.
Frequently mentioned candidates for the job include: Kathryn Ruemmler, the former White House counsel; Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts; Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.; former Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan; Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island; and Loretta E. Lynch, the United States attorney in Brooklyn.
The Justice Department said Holder finalized his plans to leave in an hour-long conversation with the president at the White House over Labor Day weekend. A formal announcement was scheduled for Thursday afternoon at the White House.
With Holder’s pending departure, Obama must now find a successor who can follow through on Holder’s initiatives for the remainder of the president’s second term. Holder’s successor will play a central role shaping the legal policies behind the war Obama is waging in Iraq and Syria.
The new attorney general will also have a big hand in helping enact new executive orders that Obama has announced, including a change in immigration policy that is expected after the midterm elections.
Finding someone who can win confirmation in the Senate may be a serious challenge for the president, especially if Republicans gain control of the chamber in November.
Republicans are likely to try and hold up any nominee they perceive as too liberal, even if Democrats barely maintain their hold on the Senate