WASHINGTON –– Eric Holder, who served as the public face of the Obama administration’s legal fight against terrorism and weighed in on issues of racial fairness, is resigning after six years on the job. He is the nation’s first black attorney general.
President Barack Obama announce Holder’s departure later today and that Holder, one of his longest serving cabinet members, planned to remain at the Justice Department until his successor was in place.
Holder’s decision comes in the midst of a high-profile Justice Department civil rights investigation into the use of force by police in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was shot by a white law enforcement officer last month.
The news of Holder’s resignation came as civil rights leaders and the families of the Ferguson man Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who died in a New York City police chokehold this summer, were appearing at a news conference in Washington.
Holder has become the point man in the federal response to the shooting, which has sparked racial tension in the St Louis suburb.
White House officials said Obama had not made a final decision on a replacement for Holder, who was one of the most progressive voices in his cabinet. A Justice Department official said Holder finalized his plans in a meeting with the president over the Labour Day weekend.
Some possible candidates who have been discussed among administration officials include Solicitor General Don Verrilli, Deputy United States Attorney General James Cole and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general. Others mentioned are former White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler; Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Jenny Durkan, a former United States attorney in Washington state.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, sometimes mentioned as a possible Holder successor, took himself out of consideration.
“That’s an enormously important job, but it’s not one for me right now,” Patrick said.
Holder, a 63-year-old former judge and prosecutor, took office in early 2009 as the American government grappled with the worst financial crisis in decades and with divisive questions on the handling of captured terrorism suspects, issues that helped shape his tenure as the country’s top law enforcement official. He is the fourth longest serving attorney general in United States history.
He also took on questions of racial fairness, working to improve police relations with minorities, enforce civil rights laws and remove disparities in sentencing. Most recently he has been at the forefront of the administration’s reaction to the police shooting in Ferguson last month of Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Holder said he hoped the local and federal investigations would be concluded sooner rather than later.
“We would not be well served as a nation to have this dragged out,” Holder said of the investigation. “There’s a great deal of anticipation, and I’d say apprehension, on the part of the people in Ferguson, and many people in this nation, about how this is going to be resolved.”
The Reverend Al Sharpton urged the White House to meet with civil rights representatives before appointing a replacement.
“There has not been an attorney general with a civil rights record equal to Attorney General Eric Holder,” Sharpton said.
In his first few years on the job, Holder 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 south-west border that prompted Republican calls for his resignation, and what was seen as failure to hold banks accountable for the economic near-meltdown.
But he stayed on after Obama won re-election, turning in his final stretch to issues that he said were personally important to him. He promoted voting rights and legal benefits for same-sex couples and pushed for changes to a criminal justice system that he said meted out punishment disproportionately to minorities.
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”.