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Understanding Eric Holder’s legacy for the Justice Department

After six years as head of the Department of Justice, Eric Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, will be stepping down. Holder has focused on major civil liberties issues, but has also been a lightning rod for partisan criticism. Gwen Ifill assesses Holder’s tenure with Tony West, the former associate attorney general, and Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Attorney General Eric Holder tendered his resignation today after six years at the helm of the Justice Department. When he officially steps down, he will be one of the longest serving and most controversial members of President Obama's Cabinet.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Hello, everybody. Please have a seat.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The president and his top law enforcement officer entered the White House state dining room late this afternoon.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    As younger men, Eric and I both studied law, and I chose him to serve as attorney general because he believes, as I do, that justice is not just an abstract theory. It's a living and breathing principle.

  • ERIC HOLDER, Attorney General:

    In good times and in bad, in things personal and in things professional, you have been there for me. I'm proud to call you my friend.

    I'm also grateful for the support you have given me and the Department as we have made real the visions that you and I have always shared.

    I have loved the Department of Justice ever since as a young boy I watched Robert Kennedy prove during the civil rights movement how the Department can and must always be a force for that which is right. I hope that I have done honor to the faith that you have placed in me, Mr. President, and to the legacy of all those who have served before me.

    I, Eric Holder…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Eric Holder became the nation's first African-American attorney general in 2009. He quickly became a lightning rod for criticism, first over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind. Holder wanted a civilian trial in New York, but was forced to leave it with a military commission at Guantanamo.

    The attorney general also drew heavy partisan fire over Operation Fast and Furious, a botched gun-running investigation in the Southwest. House Republicans cited him for contempt of Congress for allegedly withholding documents. And Holder clashed publicly with House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa.

    REP. DARRELL ISSA, Chair, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: Yes, you didn't want us to see the details, Mr. Attorney General, in knowing the to and from…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    No, no. I'm not going to stop talking now.

    When you characterize something as something…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • REP. DARRELL ISSA:

    Mr. Chairman, would you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee?

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    It's inappropriate and it's too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It's unacceptable and it's shameful.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Holder rejected demands that he resign, and told the "NewsHour" today in a phone interview: "To those who think that they forced me out, I hate to break their hearts, but that's totally untrue."

    The attorney general has focused instead on major civil liberties issues, including gay marriage. Earlier this year, he told his state counterparts they are not obligated to defend bans on gay unions.

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    I believe that we must be suspicious of legal classifications based solely on sexual orientation. And we must endeavor in all of our efforts to uphold and advance the values that once led our forbearers to declare unequivocally that all are created equal and entitled to equal opportunity.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The attorney general also vowed to find new ways to protect minority voters, after the Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act last year.

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    More recently, Holder pushed to shorten prison terms for many nonviolent offenders. He singled out drug sentencing in a "NewsHour" interview this past summer.

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    If you are basing a sentence on something other than the conduct of the person who was involved and the person's record, if you're looking, for instance, at factors of what educational level the person has received, what neighborhood the person comes from…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Which, to be clear, some states are doing already.

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    They are, right. And using that as a predictor, though, of what — how likely this person, this individual is going to be a recidivist, I'm not at all certain that I'm comfortable with that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And last month, Holder announced a full-scale investigation of the police in Ferguson, Missouri. That followed violent clashes over the death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white officer.

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    I promised that the United States Department of Justice would continue to stand with the people there long after the national headlines had faded.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Holder leaves undone a promised update of racial profiling rules for FBI agents. It's expected to include religion, gender and sexual orientation, also unresolved, a request for more immigration judges at the border. So far, Congress has balked at funding the idea.

    We examine Eric Holder's tenure now and his legacy with Tony West, who served as Holder's associate attorney general, until stepping down earlier this month, and Hans Von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and co-author of the book "Obama's Enforcer: Eric Holder's Justice Department."

    Tony West, he was your boss for a long time there. What is his legacy?

  • TONY WEST, Former Associate Attorney General:

    Well, I think his legacy will definitely include civil rights, making historic gains in civil rights, as well as reforming our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to defending our voting rights at a time when those rights are under attack.

    I think it will also include looking at the criminal justice system, where we have a criminal justice system that too often manifests divisions along race and class lines. Eric Holder is someone who has not been afraid to take those on and to try to change that. And I believe that will be part of his long-term legacy.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Hans von Spa — I always do this when I have you on.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Hans von Spakovsky, what is your idea of his legacy?

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY, The Heritage Foundation:

    Well, frankly, I welcome the resignation today, and so would anyone else who believes in the rule of law.

    He has politicized the department to an extent never seen before. In fact, one of the career lawyers that we interviewed for the book, who was hired during the Clinton administration, told us that he thought Eric Holder was the worst attorney general since Mitchell under Nixon, and that's quite a statement coming from a career lawyer.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What does he base that on?

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

    He bases it on the fact that the decision-making on prosecutions, rather than being made on the objective and fair administration of justice, has often been made on ideology and politics.

    And a great example of that is in the Civil Rights Division, where, according to an I.G. report issued last year, the race neutrality, which has always been the policy of the Justice Department when it comes to enforcing the Voting Rights Act, was ended because Eric Holder didn't believe in the race neutrality of enforcing the voting rights.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask Tony West to respond to that.

  • TONY WEST:

    Well, actually, as someone who was there in the Justice Department, that just doesn't seem to comport with the facts.

    The fact is, is that when you look at where the department has had to be very aggressive in defending voting rights after the Supreme Court struck down part of that act, the Voting Rights Act, Eric Holder has led. He's led in Texas. He's led in North Carolina with innovative legal — legal arguments based on the Voting Rights Act, Section 2.

    We have also been very active in Ohio and in Wisconsin in participating in lawsuits there as well. So I think it's almost comical to think that, of any Attorney General Eric Holder, has not stood very strong to protect the voting rights of all Americans. I think that is what the record shows.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's talk about another issue, which is the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the 9/11 plotters.

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There was much pushback when the attorney general wanted to prosecute them in a federal court in downtown New York in the shadow of the Towers, or where the Towers had once stood. He told me today when I talked to him on the phone that, if this had happened, if he had not been forced to reverse himself and send Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to a military commission, he would be on death row by now, and that he was right to do what he wanted to do the first time.

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

    Well, certainly, Democrats in Congress didn't agree with that, because, remember, it was a bill that they passed and also agreed to that prevented him from doing that.

    I actually think that's another example of what he's done wrong. He has brought back the Clinton era idea of treating terrorism as a criminal act. We saw how successful that was in 9/11. And I don't think that's been good for national security.

    In the same vein, he's opened up more leak investigations of classified information than any prior attorney general combined. But there's been a distinct pattern to those. Whenever a low-level individual could be found to be prosecuted, they have done that.

    But when leaks have been directly traced to coming out of the White House, leaks clearly intended to make the president look like he was tough on terrorism, those leak investigations have not been pursued and have not been prosecuted.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tony West?

  • TONY WEST:

    Well, certainly, when it comes to whether or not our Article 3 courts, our criminal justice system, is well-equipped to deal with terrorist cases, I think Eric Holder has been vindicated by history.

    We saw just this week the conviction and the sentencing to life of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law. That was in an Article 3 court, in Manhattan, no less. We have seen it with Abu Hamza earlier this year.

    I think it's quite clear that one of the great principles of our justice system is that our courts can handle cases like this. It is something that Eric Holder believed in back then when KSM was the issue of the day. And I think history has vindicated him.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But there has been bad blood with Congress, including some members of his own party, as Mr. Von Spakovsky points out. Did that hurt his ability to get his job done?

  • TONY WEST:

    You know, I don't — I don't think so ultimately.

    And I think oftentimes, when you think about these types of tenures, really in the fullness of time are you able to really appreciate exactly how effective an attorney general or president has been. And I think that will also be the case here.

    But the fact is that controversy is often the laboratory of greatness. And I think when you look at some of the controversial steps that other attorneys general have taken, when Attorney General Kennedy integrated the University of Alabama, that was controversial, but it was also right.

    And I think if there's anything you can say about this attorney general, he's never shrunk from doing what he believed was right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The attorney general identified to me two things where he thinks that the next incoming attorney general can work with Republicans, and that's on reforming or reviving the Voting Rights Act and also on sentencing reforms.

    And we have heard some cross-party agreement on those issues. Do you see movement coming on those issues, no matter who the attorney general is?

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

    Well, there's no reason to revive the portion of the Voting Rights Act that was thrown out by the court. That was an emergency provision that was originally only supposed to last five years.

    The rest of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2, is an effective tool against discrimination. And, in fact, that's the tool that he's been using in lawsuits around the country, although he has been phenomenally unsuccessful so far in many of those lawsuits because he doesn't have the evidence there to actually show that, for example, voter I.D. is discriminatory.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So you don't see movement happening on that?

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

    I don't.

    On criminal justice reform, I actually agree with him. And the Heritage Foundation actually believes that there are many instances of people being sentenced for crimes criminally that shouldn't be, that should, for example, just have civil fines. Some of the sentencing lengths are too long. And, there, actually, there is an area I think that both parties can work together on.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tony West, Mr. Von Spakovsky earlier compared this attorney general, this outgoing attorney general, to an attorney general who was brought — who was — left, departed under a cloud, shall we say.

  • TONY WEST:

    Mitchell.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mitchell.

    Who would you — I noticed today that one of the first calls he made notifying about his retirement was to — or his stepping down was to Ethel Kennedy. Is that who he identifies with?

  • TONY WEST:

    Well, I'll tell you, he's certainly earned the comparison, because when you look at the major issues, and if you just take the cause of LGBT rights in this country, Eric Holder was on the right side of history.

    And he was on the right side of history in a way that not only allowed the department to comport with its traditional role, but in a way that allowed us to move forward and in a way that has transformed this country ever since.

    So I think, when we look back — and, again, in the fullness of time, when we consider his tenure, we consider what he's done in criminal justice reform, when we consider what he's done in voting rights, when we consider what he's done for civil rights, I think there's no question that Eric Holder will be one of the greatest attorneys general that the country has seen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Will he outlast his critics, Mr. von Spakovsky?

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

    I don't think so.

    I think, going down the road, the legacy that he is going to be considered to have is not going to be a good one and not one that's very complimentary to him.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Final word.

  • TONY WEST:

    Well, I think only time will tell.

    But the one thing I like to remember is that when you think of the most controversial attorneys general we have had in history, the fullness of time shows that, oftentimes, they were on the right side of history, they were right. There are many reasons to believe that this attorney general will have that — will be able to be in that type of company.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK.

    Well, we're going to wait and see who the president nominates and when he nominates someone to succeed him.

  • Hans von Spakovsky, the author of “Obama’s Enforcer:

    Eric Holder's Justice Department," and Tony West, former associate attorney general, thank you both very much.

  • HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

    Thank you.

  • TONY WEST:

    Thank you, Gwen.

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