GWEN IFILL: From voting rights to border control to the death penalty, the Department of Justice holds the reins on any number of critical issues central to the national debate.
I sat down with Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department today to talk about some of them.
Thank you for joining us, Mr. Attorney General.
As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, you watched yesterday as the House voted to give the speaker the right to sue the president. What were you thinking when you saw that happen?
ERIC HOLDER, Attorney General: Well, I thought that I was witnessing something that was more political than legal.
There’s not much to that lawsuit. This is something that I would be surprised if a court finds that there is standing. And I certainly don’t expect that, at the end of the day, that the plaintiffs are going to win that case.
And I think it’s really kind of unfortunate. The president has indicated a willingness to work with Congress, but he’s also indicated that where Congress will not act — and they have not acted at historic levels — that he has to do the work of the American people. And so he’s done things that are necessary, that are legal, and that the American people want to see done.
GWEN IFILL: At the same time as the House has been chastising the president for overreaching, today, they’re having some trouble coming up with, as we speak, a vote on the border crisis, on the migrant issues.
The question I guess I have for you is, the speaker has said there’s more the president can do. Is there more the president can do?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, there’s more the president can do, but — there’s more that we can do in the executive branch, but there’s a fundamental need for us to have the funds to do these kinds of things.
I want to surge immigration judges to the border. I want to have more immigration judges at the border to process these kinds of cases. But that requires money. We estimated it would take about $3.7 billion. The Senate seemed to be moving at around the $3 billion mark. As we speak, the House is having a problem coming up with $600 million.
These things cost money. And at some point, we have to make decisions about what is in our national interest. The president, I think rightly, has made that determination that dealing with the situation on the border is of national consequence and, therefore, it should involve a national response. And that involves expending money.
GWEN IFILL: This has been a problem, this question of immigration judges at the border, at least since 2006, when Attorney General Gonzales was here. Why has it taken so long? Has it always been money?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, it’s not always that.
We certainly need more money to hire more judges. And we have increased the number of judges that we have. But the backlog that we have is unacceptably high. We need more resources. We need to be able to train more judges. So that’s something that we’re working on, but we need support of Congress in order to get us to the place where we ultimately want to be.
GWEN IFILL: Assuming that Congress doesn’t give you the money you asked for, how would you prioritize the needs at the border right now? Is it border security, as they asked for? Is it immigration judges that you asked for, or something else, something to deal with the needs of all these children who are crossing the Rio Grande coming from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, if we don’t get the congressional support that I think is absolutely needed, we will do the best that we can, we will scramble, and we will get immigration judges there in some form or fashion.
We will probably have to use technology, television, to have judges in remote locations. We will certainly make sure that border security is assured. And we will make sure also that whoever is crossing the border is treated in a fair and humanitarian way.
We will do that with the resources that we have, but the reality is that we can certainly do a much better job and do the job the American people expect if we have the resources that we have requested.
GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, you expressed your intent to speak on behalf of plaintiffs in the Wisconsin voter I.D. case and in Ohio as well.
Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld that law and said it is constitutional. What role can or should the federal government have in that at this point?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, the federal government has a unique role in making sure that every citizen has the right to exercise that most fundamental of American rights, the right to vote.
The ’65 Voting Rights Act is something that we all hold dear. It was gutted by the Shelby County decision, but left certain parts of the Voting Rights Act in place. We have used Section 2. And the plaintiffs in the case in Wisconsin used Section 2 to bring a successful voting rights case brought in a federal district court, where a federal judge made the determination that the claims were valid, in fact said that — could not find one instance where the state could show that there was an instance of voter fraud, which is kind of the underpinnings of the lawsuit, of the defense to the lawsuit in Wisconsin.
So we’re going to use Section 2, as we have in other states, in North Carolina, in Texas. We will use it in Wisconsin, or we will support those suits in Wisconsin and in Ohio as well.
GWEN IFILL: So does this mean going beyond just filing friend of the court briefs?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, at this point, I guess with regard to what we have done in Wisconsin and Ohio, we’re just filing briefs. Cases have already been filed, but we are using Section 2 in other places, in North Carolina and in Texas. Those cases have been filed and are to be adjudicated.
GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you about something else, which is — so much happening this week, but, in this case, you have been tasked with coming up with a death penalty review.
We have watched this series of botched executions in many states around the country because of the use of a certain cocktail of drugs and its availability. And there’s a lot of debate about why. But the question is whether the federal government has a role here to intervene in what is basically a state role.
ERIC HOLDER: Well, we are certainly looking at our own protocol in the federal government. There’s not been a federal execution since 2003. There’s essentially been a moratorium.
And we’re in the process, pursuant to the directions of the president, in looking at the protocol that we would use, the cocktail, the drugs that would be used if there were a federal execution. But I’m greatly troubled by what happened in Oklahoma and in Arizona.
And there may not be a legal requirement for transparency and talking about, describing the drugs that are used. But you sometimes have to go beyond that which is legally required to do something that is right. And for the state to exercise that greatest of all powers, to end a human life, it seems to me, just on a personal level, that transparency would be a good thing, and to share the information about what chemicals are being used, what drugs are being used.
And it would seem to me that would be a better way to do this.
GWEN IFILL: Why isn’t there legal recourse? Why isn’t there a way of enforcing that or standardizing it?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, I’m not saying that there isn’t. But I’m saying, regardless of whether there is or is not, I take note of the fact that Justice Kennedy made the determination that the execution could proceed in light of — in spite of the fact that a request was made for information about the drugs that were being used.
And I’m saying in spite of, you know, whether I agree or disagree with Judge Kennedy and wherever the courts may end up, there is an obligation, it seems to me, on the part of the executive branch that’s charged with that responsibility to be forthcoming about the mechanisms, the means by which this most serious of executive branch actions can be carried out.
GWEN IFILL: Where does the death penalty review that you have undertaken stand right now?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, it’s still under way.
We have people from our Civil Rights Division, our Criminal Division, various other components within the department looking at our protocol and taking into account what we have seen happen in the states recently, as we try to work our way through how the federal government is going to impose the death penalty.
GWEN IFILL: The Justice Department has had its flubs along the way, including flawed forensic work at the FBI which has led to dubious outcomes for people who were sentenced.
How do you hold states accountable, when the federal government has had its own problem being held accountable?
ERIC HOLDER: Well, we certainly admit when we have made mistakes. And when that was identified as an issue, the problem at the FBI lab, what I ordered was a review done to make sure that those mistakes could be corrected and try to identify all people who had been affected by those mistakes, make sure also that going forward we don’t make those kinds of mistakes again.
The federal government has had — made mistakes, but where we find mistakes, we admit those mistakes, we correct them. And I think we set an example for the states. They should make the same kind of inquiries. Where they have made mistakes, they should correct them as well.
And then we have certain supervisory responsibilities that we have to exercise, as a result of the supremacy clause, looking at what the states are doing. And to the extent that we find states making mistakes, we will point them out and try to work through those things in a voluntary way, to the extent that we can. And if we can’t, then we use our — the power that we have to bring lawsuits.
GWEN IFILL: Should citizens who support the death penalty worry that you’re using these questions about administration of drugs and lethal injections as a way of just undercutting the entire approach, the whole idea of the death penalty?
ERIC HOLDER: No. We are doing what the president has asked us to do.
And it is a limited review of the death penalty and how it is imposed, when it is imposed. It is the law of the land. It is the most serious thing that I do as attorney general. I have to make determinations about when we will seek the death penalty. And I have done that as attorney general. Even though I am personally opposed to the death penalty, as attorney general, I have to enforce federal law.
GWEN IFILL: Attorney General Eric Holder, thank you very much for your time.
ERIC HOLDER: All right. Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: My conversation with the attorney general also previewed a speech he plans to give tomorrow in Philadelphia about sentencing reform. You can find that portion of the interview online.