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“The Supreme Court vs. Eric Holder”: Why They’re So Wrong And He’s So Right About Voter ID

As my colleague Joan Walsh wrote when news of his pending resignation first hit the wires, Eric Holder’s legacy as U.S. attorney general is complicated. There’s a lot for a liberal to be unhappy about — too big to jail, the war on whistleblowers, continued acquiescence to the NSA — but there’s good stuff in there, too.

I was reminded of that when I watched a video of the attorney general that was released Monday morning, a short clip in which Holder blasts the Supreme Court’s decision last week to allow Ohio Republicans to reduce the amount of time allotted to Ohioans for early voting. The conservative movement’s recent embrace of policies that suppress the vote is one of the issues where Holder’s at his best. And as he argued in his new video, the extraordinary practical and symbolic meaning of the right to vote is the reason why.

“It is a major step backward to allow these reductions to early voting to go into effect,” Holder says in the video. “Early voting is about much more than making it more convenient for people to exercise their civic responsibilities,” he continues. “It’s about preserving access and openness for every eligible voter,” Holder argues, “not just those who can afford to miss work or who can afford to pay for child care.”

He’s absolutely right. While the orthodox Republican’s views on affirmative action or, say, criminal justice leave much to be desired, the campaign for voter ID laws being waged by the conservative movement — which was buoyed by the Supreme Court right-wing majority’s recent decision — strikes at something far more precious and fundamental. This, in other words, is not politics as usual.

To explain what I mean, I’m going to draw upon an analogy Jonathan Chait used a few months back, during his long debate with Ta-Nehisi Coates and others over the role culture and racism play in most African-Americans’ daily lives. I’m not going to get into that debate here (I think this piece makes plain where I land), but I want to adapt Chait’s analogy of life as a basketball game with crooked referees to the fight over voter suppression, where I think it’ll be considerably less problematic.

While it’s probably a mistake to think of the president and attorney general as mere coaches (i.e., players) in the context of fighting black poverty, when it comes to voter rights, it really is the courts — not the White House — we expect to play the role of fair-minded referee. And to give the judicial branch credit, it was initially doing an OK job of it in the Ohio case, twice shooting down Republicans’ attempt to disenfranchise Democrats in the state.

Indeed, in two separate rulings, judges saw the move for what it was: the political equivalent of a losing basketball team declaring to its sharpshooting competitor that shots made from behind the arc were now worth zero points instead of three. But that’s when Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas stepped in, giving Ohio the go-ahead in a 5-4 decision that, for whatever reason, no member of the majority felt inclined to defend individually.

If you keep in mind that, Roberts excluded, this is the exact same group of men who just a few years ago were willing to destroy health care reform out of fear of government-mandated broccoli, you should have a sense of how patently weak the argument in favor of voter ID laws. Not only because the evidence that voter fraud is a real problem is essentially zilch, but because the attempt to deny millions of Americans their only real tool of self-government, their right to vote, is contrary to what most people think is so special about U.S. democracy.

On the most basic, essential level, our right to vote is about our right to be recognized as full and legitimate members of the community. It’s the way our democracy turns our God-given (or Universe-given, if you prefer) right to control ourselves into a contract we sign allowing other people — not only the government but civil society, too — to hold over us an enormous amount of authority. It’s how we say that even if we don’t like everything about this game, we’re still willing to play.

At the risk of oversimplification: Rousseau famously claimed society was nothing less than a system of control, a network of chains keeping us locked to the status quo. What makes Attorney General Holder’s Monday address so great, and his legacy on voting rights so commendable, is his understanding that by ruling in favor of Ohio conservatives, the Supreme Court is helping them throw away the key.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, October 6, 2014

October 8, 2014 Posted by | Eric Holder, U. S. Supreme Court, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obligations To Justice”: Eric Holder And Robert F. Kennedy’s Legacy

When he announced his leave-taking last week, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke of Robert F. Kennedy as his inspiration for believing that the Justice Department “can — and must — always be a force for that which is right.”

There are many reasons our nation’s first African American attorney general might see Kennedy as his guide, but this one may be the most important: If ever a public figure was exempt from Holder’s much contested depiction of our country as a “nation of cowards” on race, it was RFK, a man who was in constant struggle with his demons and his conscience.

Few white men were as searing as Kennedy in describing how the world looked to a young black man in the late 1960s. “He is told that the Negro is making progress,” Kennedy wrote, following the racial etiquette of his time. “But what does that mean to him? He cannot experience the progress of others, nor should we seriously expect him to feel grateful because he is no longer a slave, or because he can vote or eat at some lunch counters.”

“How overwhelming must be the frustration of this young man — this young American,” Kennedy continued, “who, desperately wanting to believe and half believing, finds himself locked in the slums, his education second-rate, unable to get a job, confronted by the open prejudice and subtle hostilities of a white world, and seemingly powerless to change his condition or shape his future.”

Yet Kennedy was never one to let individuals escape responsibility for their own fates. So he also spoke of others who would tell this young black man “to work his way up, as other minorities have done; and so he must. For he knows, and we know, that only by his efforts and his own labor will the Negro come to full equality.”

Holder and his friend President Obama have lived both halves of Kennedy’s parable. Like social reformers in every time, they strived to balance their own determination to succeed with their obligations to justice. Doing this is never easy. It can’t be.

Kennedy was not alone among Americans in being tormented by how much racism has scarred our national story. That’s why I was one of many who bristled back in 2009 when Holder called us all cowards. For all our flaws, few nations have faced up to a history of racial subjugation as regularly and comprehensively as we have. And Holder and Obama have both testified to our progress.

Yet rereading Kennedy is to understand why Holder spoke as he did. That the young man Kennedy described is still so present and recognizable tells us that complacency remains a subtle but corrosive sin. One of Holder’s finest hours as attorney general was his visit to Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown. Many young black men still fear they will be shot, a sign that the “open prejudice and subtle hostilities of a white world” have not gone away. We have moved forward, yet we still must overcome.

Holder leaves two big legacies in this area from which his successors must not turn away. In the face of a regressive Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, he has found other ways to press against renewed efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. And it is a beacon of hope that sentencing reform and over-incarceration, central Holder concerns, are matters now engaging conservatives, libertarians and liberals alike.

The New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo captured the irony of Holder’s tenure with the observation that his time as attorney general “is unique in that his biggest supporters are also among his loudest critics.” Many progressives have been troubled by his record on civil liberties in the battle against terrorism, his aggressive pursuit of journalists’ e-mails and phone records in leak investigations, and his reluctance to prosecute individual Wall Street malefactors.

That these issues will long be debated is a reminder that Holder was first a lawyer and public servant, most of whose work had nothing to do with race. That he singled out Kennedy as his hero shows that none of us need be imprisoned by race. That Holder cajoled and provoked us on the need “to confront our racial past, and our racial present” is itself an achievement that transcends the color line.

Kennedy, who spoke of those who braved “the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society,” would understand the risks that Holder ran.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 29, 2014

September 30, 2014 Posted by | Eric Holder, Robert F. Kennedy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Holder A Fighter Who Would Not Cower”: He Dared Others To Summon The Nerve To Fight Alongside Him

Eric Holder, who resigned Thursday, kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the American public that set the tone for his six turbulent years as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” said Holder in his first public speech after being sworn in.

When the remark drew an uproar from conservatives, Holder shrugged and doubled down. “I wouldn’t walk away from that speech,” Holder told ABC News. “I think we are still a nation that is too afraid to confront racial issues,” rarely engaging “one another across the color line [to] talk about racial issues.”

And true to form, Holder — a tall man who carries himself with the relaxed, quiet confidence of a corporate attorney — seldom backed down from a confrontation, on racial justice or other issues.

He pressed Credit Suisse, and the Swiss bank eventually paid over $2.6 billion to settle claims it was illegally helping wealthy Americans avoid paying taxes. Holder took the lead in pushing banks and other financial companies involved in the mortgage crisis to pay $25 billion to federal and state governments, a record civil settlement.

And Holder famously sparred with members of Congress such as Darrell Issa and Louie Gohmert as the television cameras rolled. In one heated exchange at a Judiciary Committee hearing in 2013, Issa and Holder talked over each other, with the attorney general concluding, “That is inappropriate and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It’s unacceptable, and it’s shameful.”

In another back-and-forth, Holder trash-talked Gohmert with lines that could have been taken from a comedy routine. “You don’t want to go there, buddy. You don’t want to go there, OK?”

While the history books will note Holder was the first African-American attorney general, a more relevant biographical fact might be his status as possibly the first attorney general who, as a college student protester, occupied a campus building: In 1969, as a freshman at Columbia University, Holder was part of a group of black students that took over a former naval ROTC office for five days, demanding that it be renamed the Malcolm X Lounge. (In a sign of the times, the university complied.)

Echoes of Holder’s activist history could be heard years later, in the middle of a high-stakes battle with leaders of several Southern states over voter-ID laws and other rules changes that Holder deemed an attack on black voting rights.

“People should understand that there’s steel here, and I am resolved to oppose any attempts to try to roll back the clock,” Holder told CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin in an article for The New Yorker.

Not all of Holder’s crusades have worked out well.

The Supreme Court, despite Holder’s efforts, voted to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and conservative senators blocked Debo Adegbile, Holder’s preferred choice to run the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.

The attorney general has launched or joined legal battles against restrictions on voting rights in Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina, but it’s unclear whether those efforts will end up back at the same Supreme Court that weakened the original law.

In 2012, House Republicans voted to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress for stonewalling on information requests in the bungled Fast and Furious gun-smuggling operation in which 2,000 weapons went missing. It was the first time in U.S. history that a sitting Cabinet member was given such a severe sanction. (The case will continue after Holder’s resignation, although his successor will inherit the fallout, not Holder personally.)

But history will surely judge Holder a success at broadly expanding access to justice for groups seeking acceptance and fairness. He announced the federal government would no longer defend laws banning same-sex marriage and told state attorneys general they could do the same.

And Holder made good on his initial commitment to change the conversation on race. He traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, and assigned dozens of Justice Department personnel to investigate law enforcement practices after the police killing of Michael Brown triggered street riots.

He has also called for voting rights to be restored to formerly incarcerated Americans, and pressed for a reduction in the prosecution of low-level marijuana users.

For one clue about how history will regard Holder, go back to 2009. In the effort to battle terrorism, Holder called for five accused terrorist’s suspected of participating in the 9/11 attacks to be tried in federal courts in New York — only to see the proposal scuttled after a political uproar.

“We need not cower in the face of this enemy,” Holder told skeptical members of the Senate. They didn’t buy the argument, but it was classic Holder: Once again, the battler leaping into the arena and daring others to summon the nerve to fight alongside him.

 

By: Errol Louis, CNN Opinion, September 26, 2014

September 29, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Eric Holder | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ted Cruz’s A.G. Fight Already Misguided”: More So Than Usual, Cruz Has No Idea Of What He’s Talking About

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) does not believe in wasting time. Less than 24 hours have passed since Attorney General Eric Holder announced he’s stepping down, and at this point, no one seems to have any idea when the White House will announce a successor or who he or she will be.

But for Cruz, that just means now is a good time to start drawing battle lines.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) issued a political call to arms for conservatives, saying that outgoing senators should not vote on the nominee during the post-election lame-duck session. “Allowing Democratic senators, many of whom will likely have just been defeated at the polls, to confirm Holder’s successor would be an abuse of power that should not be countenanced,” Cruz said in a statement.

Perhaps more so than usual, Cruz has no idea what he’s talking about.

As Kevin Drum noted in response, “Unless Cruz is suggesting that they should be banned completely, then of course business should be conducted during lame duck sessions. What else is Congress supposed to do during those few weeks?”

Right. Members of the Senate are elected to serve six-year terms. The Constitution, which Cruz usually loves to talk about, is quite explicit on this point. Article I does not say senators’ terms end after 5 years and 10 months, with the final two months designated as goof-off time.

Indeed, if Cruz is still confused, he can look to very recent history to understand that nominating and confirming cabinet officials during a lame-duck session is the exact opposite of “an abuse of power.”

In November 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced he was stepping down at the Pentagon. Almost immediately thereafter, then-President George W. Bush nominated Robert Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor, and during the lame-duck session, the Senate held confirmation hearings, a committee vote, and a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

Gates was confirmed, 95 to 2, and he was sworn in the week before Christmas 2006. Some of the senators who voted in support of the nominee, to use Cruz’s language, had “just been defeated at the polls,” but it didn’t make a bit of difference.

Why not? Because they were still senators who had a job to do. Indeed, 2006 was an especially important year: the Republican majority in the Senate had just been voted out in a Democratic wave election, in large part because of the Bush administration’s national-security policy. And yet, the Senate still moved quickly and efficiently to consider and confirm a new Pentagon chief.

This wasn’t an “abuse of power.” It was just the American political process working as it’s designed to work.

The same is true now, whether Cruz understands that or not.

Of course, there’s another scenario the far-right Texan may also want to keep in mind: the longer Cruz and his cohorts delay the process, the longer Eric Holder will remain the Attorney General. Indeed, Holder made it quite clear yesterday that he intends to stay on until his successor is ready to step into the office.

Under the circumstances, and given the right’s uncontrollable hatred for the current A.G., shouldn’t Cruz want the Senate to vote on Holder’s replacement during the lame-duck session? Has he really thought his current posturing through?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 27, 2014

September 28, 2014 Posted by | Eric Holder, Senate, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Meaningful Change”: Eric Holder Transformed The Attorney General Into An Advocate For The Poor

On September 25, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. He made history as the nation’s first African American attorney general and will most likely be remembered for his vigorous enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws. He deserves equal accolades for his leadership in working to reform the nation’s broken criminal justice system. Since his appointment as attorney general, he has consistently criticized the draconian federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases and has decried the unwarranted racial disparities in the criminal justice system, calling the phenomenon “a civil rights issue … that I’m determined to confront as long as I’m attorney general.” And he certainly kept that promise.

Before becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer, there was no indication that Eric Holder would ultimately become an advocate for poor people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. After all, Eric Holder spent most of his professional career as a criminal prosecutor. He started out as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section where for 12 years he worked to put away corrupt public officials. During his five years as a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, he earned a reputation as a tough sentencer, locking up countless young African American men for long periods of time.

Eric Holder left the bench to become the first African American United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. When Holder was appointed to be D.C.’s chief prosecutor, I was the city’s chief defender. As Director of the Public Defender for the District of Columbia, my interactions with Holder’s predecessors were very adversarial. Holder was determined to change that. Soon after his appointment, he visited my office and promised a change in policies and practices. Although he instituted a number of programs in his office, he did not make efforts to reduce the prison population or address racial disparities. He was more polite than his predecessors, but there was absolutely no indication that he would ultimately lead the charge to reverse the nation’s shameful record of incarcerating more of its citizens than any western nation in the world.

In 1997, Holder continued his career as a prosecutor when he became the nation’s first African American deputy attorney general under Janet Reno during the Clinton administration. As second in charge at the Justice Department, Holder supported and championed Reno’s positions on criminal justice issues. At that time, sentencing laws required judges to sentence those in possession of five grams of crack cocaine to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison while that harsh sentence could only be imposed in cases involving powder cocaine when the amount was 500 grams. The enforcement of these laws resulted in much harsher sentences for African Americans. Although Reno was in favor of narrowing the disparity, she strongly opposed eliminating it, and, as her deputy, so did Holder.

At the end of Clinton’s second term, Holder went into private practice before returning to lead the Justice Department that he’d worked in for most of his career. From the beginning of his term as attorney general in 2009, Eric Holder began to champion vigorous reform of the criminal justice system. The vast majority of criminal cases are prosecuted in state courts, and the Attorney General has no supervisory power over state and local cases. However, Holder consistently used his bully pulpit to advocate for criminal justice reform and took direct action to order reforms in the federal system throughout his tenure as attorney general.

As early as June 2009, Holder spoke at a symposium on reforming federal sentencing policy sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. In his remarks, Holder announced that he had ordered a review of the department’s charging and sentencing policies, consideration of alternatives to incarceration, and an examination of other unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing. He stated that “the disparity between crack and powder cocaine must be eliminated and must be addressed by this congress this year.”

The following year, Holder gave remarks at the Justice Department’s National Symposium on Indigent Defense, where he spoke passionately about how the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was not being fulfilled for poor people charged with crimes. He pledged his commitment to improving indigent defense, stating that he had “asked the entire Department of Justice … to focus on indigent defense issues with a sense of urgency and a commitment to developing and implementing the solutions we need.” And he fulfilled that pledge. In October 2013, the Justice Department awarded a total of $6.7 million to state and local criminal and civil legal services organizations that provide defense serves for the poor. Most recently, Holder filed a statement of interest expressing his support for a lawsuit against the state of New York that challenges the deficiencies in New York’s public defender system.

Holder’s most comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts were announced in a speech he gave at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting in 2013. In these remarks, Holder said, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law-enforcement reason.” He also decried the unwarranted racial disparities, stating that “people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. … [b]lack male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptableit is shameful.” Holder then went on to announce sweeping reforms, including ordering federal prosecutors to refrain from charging low level nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences; a compassionate release program to consider the release of nonviolent, elderly, and/or ill prisoners; the increased use of alternatives to incarceration; and the review and reconsideration of statutes and regulations that impose harsh collateral consequences (such as loss of housing and employment) on people with criminal convictions.

We have yet to witness the positive effects of Holder’s criminal justice legacy, and some may suggest that he didn’t go far enough. But few will disagree that his efforts surpass those of any previous attorney general. Did Holder’s views on criminal justice evolve over time? Or did he always believe that the system was broken and in need of reform? Perhaps both statements are true. What matters is that at the end of the day, when he was in a position to effect meaningful change in our criminal justice system, this former prosecutor became a champion of liberty. And for that, this former public defender will forever be grateful.

 

By: Angela Davis, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law; The New Republic, September 27, 2014

September 28, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Eric Holder, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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