WASHINGTON (AP) — Eric Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general and an unflinching champion of civil rights in enforcing the nation’s laws, is resigning after leading the Justice Department for six years under President Barack Obama.
The White House said Holder, the administration’s point man on the civil rights investigation into the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, won’t leave until a replacement is confirmed, which means he will remain in office for months.
In a speech earlier this week, Holder described his dual personal perspective on the Ferguson shooting, saying he had the utmost respect for police as a former prosecutor and brother of an officer. But, he added, “As an African-American man who has been stopped and searched by police in situations where such actions were not warranted, I also carry with me an understanding of the mistrust that some citizens harbor.”
Holder aggressively enforced the Voting Rights Act, addressed drug-sentencing guidelines that led to disparities between white and black convicts, extended legal benefits to same-sex couples and refused to defend a law that allowed states to disregard gay marriages. His oversaw the determination to prosecute terror suspects in the U.S. civilian courts instead of at Guantanamo Bay and helped establish a legal rationale for lethal drone strikes on suspects overseas.
He was a lightning rod for conservative critics and endured a succession of controversies over, among other things, an ultimately abandoned plan to try terrorism suspects in New York City, a botched gun-running probe along the Southwest border that prompted Republican calls for his resignation, and what was seen as failure to hold banks accountable for the economic near-meltdown.
Holder and his wife are close personally to the Obamas, having recently vacationed together on Martha’s Vineyard, and a Holder adviser said the attorney general has been discussing his departure with Obama for several months. A Justice Department official said Holder finalized his plans in a meeting with the president over the Labor Day weekend.
White House officials said Obama had not made a final decision on a replacement for Holder, who was one of the most liberal voices in his Cabinet. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said naming a new attorney general would be a high priority for the president.
Some possible candidates that have been mentioned among administration officials include Solicitor General Don Verrilli; Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole; White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler; Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney in Washington state, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general.
Only three other attorney generals in U.S. history have served longer than the 63-year-old Holder.
A former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, Holder was pulled away from private practice to reshape a Justice Department that had been tarnished by a scandal involving fired U.S. attorneys and that had authorized harsh interrogation methods for terrorism suspects. He immediately signaled a new direction for the incoming administration by declaring that waterboarding was torture, contrary to the George W. Bush administration’s insistence that it wasn’t.
In the first year of his tenure, Holder was widely criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for his plan to try professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged co-conspirators in New York. The plan was doomed by political opposition to granting civilian criminal trials to terrorist suspects, but Holder continued to maintain that civilian courts were the most appropriate venue.
Under his watch, the Justice Department cracked down on news media reporting on national security matters. The department secretly subpoenaed phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors and used a search warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist as part of a separate leak investigation.
Stung by criticism that the department hadn’t been aggressive enough in targeting financial misconduct, Holder in the past year and a half secured criminal guilty pleas from two foreign banks and multibillion-dollar civil settlements with American banks arising from the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. Even then, critics noted that no individuals were held accountable.
On matters of policy, Holder spoke frankly about how his upbringing — his father emigrated from Barbados and his sister-in-law helped integrate the University of Alabama — helped shape his thinking. He referred to America in 2009 as a “nation of cowards” in its discussions of race. He later lamented that “systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Pete Yost and Jesse Holland in Washington and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.