Eric Holder is retiring from his post as Attorney General this month; leaving behind a mixed legacy as the first African American to hold the position. When first appointed by President Obama in 2009, he was hailed as the new voice for civil rights in the cabinet; pre-emptive praise well-earned from his impressive career as a lawyer in Washington D.C. During his tenure, America has been through a whirlwind of change. Holder has entrenched some liberal values in the Department of Justice concerning civil rights and undocumented immigration policy. However, when encountering situations placing the Obama Administration’s reputation in question, Holder retreated from those same values to protect the reputation of the President and the Executive Branch. His successor (who has not been announced) will determine whether Holder’s restraining of the press becomes the norm and if hiding government operations from citizens takes priority over the First Amendment.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder. Section 4 concerns the enforcement of Section 5 of the act, and mandates that states with a history of discriminatory voting laws (mostly southern states and parts of New York and California) have federal government approval before making electoral law changes. These changes include the redrawing of districts and voter identification necessary for registration. By siding with Shelby Country and ruling Section 4 unconstitutional, the Supreme Court undermined the Department of Justice, severely limiting Holder’s resources to challenge discriminatory laws. His attempt to battle discrimination is a valiant one. By acknowledging that systemic racism is maintained by subtleties in county voting laws, Holder is refusing to allow race to disappear as an issue. Since the ruling, Holder and the Department of Justice utilized Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; stipulating the prohibition of discriminatory voting practices. Although Holder could only act once legislation was passed, his crusade against voting restrictions have resulted in lawsuits pending in North Carolina and Texas. Holder confronted discriminatory voting practices by consistently challenging their legality, and ensured that voting rights will remain at the forefront of the Department of Justice’s agenda.
Attorney General Eric Holder similarly challenged racist immigration policies; specifically Arizona’s SB1070 in 2011. The law in question would have allowed Arizona police officers to check papers at any given opportunity, including routine traffic stops, criminal investigations, or any crime unrelated to residency status. As officers could question individuals at the officer’s discretion, the policy targeted individuals who looked ‘illegal’ to police officers. Holder immediately spoke against the law and took measures to halt its enforcement. The Ninth Circuit of Appeals struck down SB1070, stating that the law led to racial profiling. As the flux of undocumented migrants in southern states increased, so did the willingness to subject citizens to racial profiling and violations of privacy. Holder, by maintaining the Department of Homeland Security’s jurisdiction of immigration issues, limited racially motivated crackdowns on undocumented migrants.
In contrast, Holder’s record falters when weighing national security with the First Amendment. Specifically, during his tenure Holder prosecuted those who had leaked classified information in the name of national security. The United States has historically held journalist’s confidentiality of sources in high regard; preventing possible witnesses from forced testimony in courts. Yet under Holder the Justice Department have sought criminal charges in eight leak cases during the Obama Administration; an unprecedented number of prosecutions which limit the rights of the press. For example, James Risen of The New York Times was subpoenaed in 2013 regarding information from his book State of War. The book reveals classified information regarding the American policy concerning the nuclear potential of Iran. Risen’s testimony would support the government investigation of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official. The United States Court of Appeals supported the Justice Department and ordered Risen to testify, claiming that “reporters have no privilege to refuse to provide direct evidence of criminal wrongdoing by confidential sources”. Should the press continue to be trampled in the name of security, inquisition of government activities would be restrained, something with grave consequences in a liberal democracy.
Eric Holder leaves his post as Attorney General with a somewhat questionable record. His stance on civil rights and undocumented migration will be touted by liberal America for years to come; preventing discrimination in poll booths and on the streets of border states is certainly no easy feat. However, his tenure is tainted by narrowing First Amendment rights, particularly with regard to how Holder handled government leaks and press freedom. Historically considered a cornerstone of America’s democracy, the press has been gagged by forced source admission and criminal accountability for the release of classified information. Holder represents a new government; one that prioritizes security over civil liberties. Many of Attorney General Holder’s initiatives are admirable, but to sacrifice some of our core constitutional values in the name of security is contemptible. His successor’s tenure will reveal if Holder’s trade-off is unique or trend-setting.