Leahy Opens Debate On Holder Nomination; Senate To Vote Tonight

WASHINGTON (Monday, Feb. 2, 2009) – The Senate is expected to vote later tonight on the nomination of Eric H. Holder Jr. to be Attorney General of the United States.  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), opened the Senate’s debate on the nomination this afternoon.  Holder’s nomination was reported by the Judiciary Committee in a 17-2 vote on Jan. 28.  A vote is expected around 6:15 p.m.

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Consideration Of Eric H. Holder Jr.
To Be Attorney General Of The United States
February 2, 2009 

Full record statement, as prepared. 

Today, the Senate considers President Obama’s historic nomination of Eric Holder to be Attorney General of the United States. 

The Judiciary Committee voted last week to report Mr. Holder’s nomination to the Senate for consideration.  That strong, bipartisan 17 to 2 vote in favor was a statement that Members from both sides of the aisle recognize that Mr. Holder has the character, integrity and independence to be Attorney General.  It is a statement that we all want to restore the integrity and competence of the Justice Department and to restore another critical component—the American people’s confidence in Federal law enforcement.  The broad support Mr. Holder’s nomination has from law enforcement, from advocates for crime victims, from civil rights organizations and from across the political spectrum comes as no surprise to those of us that have known of Eric Holder during his decades of dedicated public service.

After more than two months of scrutiny and consideration, I was pleased to see Mr. Holder’s nomination gain the support of such a large majority from the Judiciary Committee.  I thank all the Democratic Members for their thorough consideration of this nomination.  In particular, I thank our newly assigned Members for following the hearings and participating in our deliberations without missing a step.  I thank the Republican Members, as well.  I had said that Senators could vote for or against the nomination and two Senators determined to vote no, as is their right.  With respect to the six Republican Members who ended up supporting the nomination, I note that Senator Hatch, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, did so early on.  Then, in the last days the Ranking Republican member of the Committee, another former Committee Chairman, as well as Senator Grassley, Senator Sessions, a former U.S. Attorney and state attorney general, Senator Kyl, the Republican whip, and Senator Graham came to support the Holder nomination.   In my three and a half decades in the Senate, I have never seen a nominee as qualified as Eric Holder to serve as the Nation’s top law enforcement officer.

The need for new leadership at the Department of Justice is as critical today as it has ever been.  Over the last few years, political manipulation from the White House has undercut the Justice Department in its mission, and shaken public confidence in our Federal justice system.  

The Judiciary Committee expended a good deal of effort over the last two years to uncover scandals at the Department of Justice.  Former Attorney General Gonzales and virtually every top-ranking Department official resigned during our inquiry.  Likewise, Karl Rove and his White House political deputies resigned.  

Before the November election, I coauthored an article with our Ranking Republican Member.  We wrote that the next Attorney General “must be someone who deeply appreciates and respects the work and commitment of the thousands of men and women who work in the branches and divisions of the Justice Department, day in and day out, without regard to politics or ideology, doing their best to enforce the law and promote justice.”  I have every confidence that Eric Holder is such a person. 

Mr. Holder’s designation was greeted with delight by the career professionals at the Justice Department because they know him well.  They know he is the right person to restore the Department.  They know him from his 12 years at the Public Integrity Section, from his time as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, from his tenure on the bench, and from his years as the Deputy Attorney General, the second-highest ranking official at the Department.  His confirmation will do a great deal to restore morale and purpose throughout the Department. 

It is important that the Department also have the rest of its senior leadership in place without delay.  This week, we will hold a hearing for the Deputy Attorney General nominee, and I will soon notice hearings for the other members of the Justice Department leadership team. 

I wished we could have moved even more quickly to put the new leadership in place at the Department at a time when we face serious challenges and threats.  When President Bush nominated Michael Mukasey in 2007 to the Attorney General’s seat vacated by the resignation of Alberto Gonzales, Senator Jon Kyl said: “Since the Carter administration, attorney general nominees have been confirmed, on average, in approximately three weeks, with some being confirmed even more quickly.  The Senate should immediately move to consider Judge Mukasey’s nomination and ensure he is confirmed before Congress recesses for Columbus Day.”  Well, it has been more than twice that long since Mr. Holder’s designation and three times that long since reports of his impending nomination.  Our consideration was delayed because I accommodated requests from the Ranking Republican Member and Committee Republicans and postponed the hearing until January 15 and then they postponed consideration another week through procedural objections. 

Mr. Holder spent more than nine hours testifying before the Judiciary Committee at his hearing two and a half weeks ago, answering every question any Member of the Judiciary Committee, Republicans and Democrats, chose to ask him.  All Senators were accorded such time as they needed in three extended rounds of questioning to ask whatever they chose. 

Despite that extended hearing and a second day of hearings with public witnesses that I convened at the request of our Republican Members, in the week after the hearings 12 Senators sent Mr. Holder 125 pages of extensive follow up questions.  He has answered these questions – more than 400 of them – as well.

I asked for the cooperation of all Members to debate and vote on Mr. Holder’s nomination on the day after the President’s inauguration but instead, as is his right, the Ranking Republican Member held over the nomination for another week.  I was, as I said, extremely disappointed.  I did not schedule that markup until I had consulted with the Senator from Pennsylvania first.  Indeed, he had assured me that he would not hold the matter over.  Yet he joined with the Republican Members of this Committee in a unanimous request to hold over the nomination. 

Senator McCain was right last week when he said about the President’s cabinet nominations: “We shouldn’t delay…. We had an election, and we also had a remarkable and historic [inauguration], and this nation has come together as it has not for some time.”  He concluded that he understood that “the message that the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together and get to work.”  Regrettably the Republican Members of the Judiciary Committee did not hear or act on that message two weeks ago.  I am glad that they changed course last week and that so many of them have come to support the nomination.

Yet, even after receiving strong bi-partisan support in the Committee, a handful of Senate Republicans chose to delay yet again confirming this well-qualified nominee to his vital post.  We could and should have debated Mr. Holder’s nomination and confirmed him last week, but some Senators on the other side of the aisle seem unable to resist continuing their partisan tactics of obstruction and delay.

President Obama in his inaugural address spoke about the real challenges facing the country and the American people.   He urged that we all work for the common good and “proclaim an end to the petty grievances” and “recriminations” and that we “set aside childish things.” 

President Obama is right.  There is work to be done. There are real threats. There are abuses to be undone and rights that need to be restored. We need to get on with the task of remaking America.

Eric Holder is a good man, a decent man, a public servant committed to the rule of law.  He will be a good Attorney General. 

Republicans know this.  They heard from him at his hearing.  They have heard the endorsements of former FBI Director Louis Freeh, President Bush’s homeland security adviser Fran Townsend, Senator Warner of Virginia, Senator Hatch, Senator Martinez, and the many Reagan and Bush administration officials who have endorsed his nomination.  They have seen the endorsements from the National Association of Police Organizations, the Fraternal Order of Police and the entire law enforcement community.

I would like to put into the record a list of the more than 130 law enforcement and criminal justice organizations, civil rights organizations, victims’ advocates, legal practitioners, bar associations, and current and former public officials that support Senate confirmation of Mr. Holder’s nomination.  These letters from nearly every part of the political spectrum are in the Committee’s hearing record and available for any Senator to read.

Judge Louis Freeh, a former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who testified before the Committee in support of Mr. Holder, said that Mr. Holder “has the highest legal competence, total integrity, leadership, and, most importantly, the political independence to discharge faithfully the immense trust this Nation reposes in its Attorney General.”  Judge Freeh was “honored to give him my very highest personal and professional recommendation.”  Former Attorney General William Barr and nine Republican lawyers and former officials wrote to the Committee in support of Mr. Holder’s nomination.  They noted “that not only is Eric superbly qualified to be Attorney General, but he is truly a good man.”  They further urged “his rapid confirmation as our next Attorney General of the United States.”

James Comey, the Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush and before that prosecutor in charge of the Marc Rich case and the criminal investigation into the Marc Rich pardon, described Mr. Holder as “a smart, decent, humble man, who knows and loves the Department and has demonstrated his commitment to the rule of law across an entire career,” and urged his confirmation.

The endorsement from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and a number of civil rights organizations expressed “strong support for the historic nomination of Eric Holder to the position of Attorney General of the United States,” citing Holder as “among the most qualified nominees for Attorney General in the last fifty years and . . . uniquely suited to lead the Department at this moment in time.”  The endorsement noted that: “The nation urgently needs an Attorney General dedicated to restoring the independence and integrity of the Department, with an unquestionable commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.  Eric Holder is the right person for this job.”

Nearly every major law enforcement organization has expressed support for Mr. Holder, including the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).  The National Sheriffs’ Association highlighted Mr. Holder’s “outstanding record of public service in his role as a federal prosecutor, a trial judge, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and the Deputy Attorney General for the Department of Justice.”  The National Troopers Coalition urged Mr. Holder’s “speedy confirmation to the office of Attorney General” and wrote that he “presents a distinguished career as a prosecutor, Superior Court Justice and Deputy Attorney General.  This unmatched experience will prove to be invaluable in directing our law enforcement efforts at this difficult time in history.”

Chuck Canterbury, the National President of the FOP, testified in support of Mr. Holder’s nomination, saying that Mr. Holder is “not only well qualified but possessing in excess the requisite character, knowledge, and skills to do this job and be an extremely effective leader for the Department.”

Fran Townsend, President Bush’s homeland security advisor, also testified and said:  “I am not here because I believe that, if confirmed as Attorney General, Eric Holder will decide legal issues necessarily in the same way that I would.  On the contrary, I expect that there would often be times where this is not the case.  I am here because I believe Eric is competent, capable, and a fair-minded lawyer who will not hesitate to uphold and defend the laws and the Constitution of the United States.” 

Ms. Townsend also pointed to the dangers of delay in confirming Mr. Holder as Attorney General.  She testified: “The Attorney General position must be filled quickly.  We remain a nation at war and a nation that faces the continuous threat of terrorist attack.  We cannot afford for the Attorney General position to sit vacant or for there to be a needlessly protracted period where the leadership of the department is in question.”

I do not know why Republican Senators who supported the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales without any reservation slowed the consideration of the nomination of Eric Holder.  He meets and exceeds any fair standard for confirmation.  And at this time in our history, with the challenges we face, we need to move forward and confirm the new Attorney General and the leadership team at the Justice Department.

Mr. Holder has demonstrated that he is committed to restoring the rule of law, and, as President Obama said, “to reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”   I am more convinced than ever that Eric Holder is a person who will reinvigorate the Department of Justice and serve ably as a key member of the President’s national security team.  He will pursue the Justice Department’s vital missions with skill, integrity, independence and a commitment to the rule of law.

I remember when the senior Senator from Pennsylvania took the occasion of the confirmation hearing for John Ashcroft to be Attorney General to apologize to Judge Ronnie White of Missouri for the manner in which his nomination to the Federal court had been rejected in a party line vote of Senate Republicans.  I remember when the senior Senator from Utah and I had to labor for weeks to overcome the anonymous Republican hold on the Senate floor of Mr. Holder’s nomination to be the Deputy Attorney General in 1997.  Regrettably, after celebrating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the Judiciary Committee treated Mr. Holder’s nomination to be Attorney General to the tactics of the past—more delay, more obstruction, more partisan muscle flexing.  I am pleased that this week those who sought to delay and were considering opposing had second thoughts.  Perhaps the unifying spirit of President Obama’s inauguration had a delayed effect, perhaps it was the overwhelming support for the nomination, perhaps it was the qualities and qualifications of the nominee himself.  Whatever the reason, I am glad to see so many Senators heed President Obama’s call and perhaps heard the echo of President Lincoln’s first inaugural address and were “touched . . . by the better angels of [their] nature.”

I questioned Mr. Holder at his hearing and he gave his commitment to respect the Second Amendment right to bear arms as an individual right guaranteed by our Bill of Rights.  I asked him to work with me on a media shield law, and he said that he would do so.  I asked him about revitalizing the Freedom of Information Act, and he was agreeable.  President Obama took action on that score in his first full day in office, and once confirmed, Attorney General Holder can bring that policy to fruition so that the Federal government is more open to the American people. 

I asked about anti-crime initiatives, strengthening the Violence Against Women Act and defending the Voting Rights Act.  On all these matters he was straightforward and supportive.  I look forward to working with him to provide greater Federal assistance to state and local law enforcement and to aggressively target fraud and public corruption.  He said that his priorities will be the safety and security of the American people and reinvigorating the traditional work of the Justice Department in protecting the rights of Americans.

Mr. Holder has had a long and distinguished career in public service.  His willingness to leave a lucrative private law practice and forego extensive earnings in order to return to public service at a time when judges are leaving the Federal bench because of their salary constraints, is commendable. 

We need an Attorney General, as Robert H. Jackson said 68 years ago, “who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.”  That is the kind of man Eric Holder is, the kind of prosecutor Eric Holder always was, and the kind of Attorney General he will be.  The next Attorney General will understand our moral and legal obligation to protect the fundamental rights of all Americans and to respect the human rights of all people.   

It is important that the Justice Department have its senior leadership in place without delay.  The Attorney General is the top law enforcement officer in the country and a key member of the national security team.  With the Bush administration having devoted billions to bailouts in the last few months, we need to ensure that those resources are not diverted by fraud or deceit.  We need the Justice Department to be at its best.

The responsibilities of the Attorney General of the United States are too important to have had this appointment delayed by partisan bickering.  We have known and worked with Mr. Holder for more than 20 years.  He has been nominated by a Republican President and by a Democratic President and confirmed three times by the Senate to important positions over the last 20 years.  His record of public service, his integrity, his experience and his commitment to the rule of law merit our respect and deserve our support. 

Republicans over the last months sought to make comparisons to other confirmation hearings at other times, and even to those for lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court.  These comparisons are inappropriate.  For example, the circumstances of the Ashcroft nomination were very different.  The country at that time was deeply divided, and those divisions had been inflamed by the manner by which the Supreme Court had intervened to stop the counting of ballots in Florida and decide the outcome.  Just before Christmas, President-elect Bush had further accentuated the divide by his polarizing designation of John Ashcroft to be Attorney General.  By contrast, we have just experienced the historic election of Barack Obama.  President Obama has made numerous efforts already to be inclusive and to reach across the political aisle. 

His selection of Eric Holder two months ago was greeted by nearly universal acclaim.  The domestic and economic challenges to our country in recent years have been the most serious since the Great Depression.  In recognition of those circumstances, Democrats expedited consideration of President Bush’s nomination of Michael Mukasey to be Attorney General.  Democrats scheduled a hearing quickly and did not hold the nomination over when it was scheduled for consideration.  Those of us who were troubled by his unwillingness to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture voted no, but we were not dilatory.  We did not play partisan political games.  

My fundamental concern with President Bush’s nomination of his White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was that he would not be independent of the White House.  I did not oppose that nomination in a kneejerk, partisan reflex.  Indeed, I initially hoped that he would be an improvement over the Ashcroft years.  I met with Mr. Gonzales, raised the issue in my initial statement at his confirmation hearings and gave him opportunity after opportunity to demonstrate that he understood the role of the Attorney General.  He did not.  Ultimately I opposed that nomination.  History proved me right.  At the time, not a single Republican Senator was concerned.  They all voted in favor of the Gonzales nomination.  If that nomination met their standard for consideration, all of them must support Mr. Holder’s nomination.  

Unlike Mr. Gonzales, Eric Holder understands the responsibilities of the Attorney General of the United States, and the need to uphold the law and act in the interests of the American people, and not just the President.  Unlike Mr. Ashcroft, he admitted past errors and has learned from his mistakes.  Unlike Judge Mukasey, he recognizes that waterboarding is torture and that the legal opinions of the Bush era need to be reviewed and revised where they are found to be wrong.   If an American were waterboarded by some government or terrorist anywhere in the world, it would be torture and illegal.  It would not “depend on the circumstances” as the Bush Attorneys General maintained.

I recall the incident that Jane Mayer wrote about in her book The Dark Side.  During a meeting of top White House officials like Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Rice, the CIA Director and the Attorney General,  in which they were hearing the details of what the Bush administration liked to call “enhanced interrogation techniques,”  Attorney General Ashcroft is quoted as warning:  “History will not judge us kindly.” 

The Senate should proceed to confirm President Obama’s nomination of Eric Holder without further delay.  We must have leadership in place at the Justice Department to begin the vital work that must be done to carry out the Executive Orders signed by President Obama last week that will finally put an end some of the Bush administration’s most damaging national security policies.  These orders call for the Attorney General to coordinate comprehensive interagency reviews of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility by the State Department, Director of National Intelligence, Homeland Security Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff and to chair task forces with the DNI and Department of Defense reviewing interrogation and detention policies.  We need Mr. Holder in place as Attorney General to carry out these orders and put the government’s detainee policies on a solid legal footing for the first time in many years. 

I do not want another Attorney General who sits in the room while others in our Government approve the secret wiretapping of Americans in violation of our laws, or approve torture. 

I want an Attorney General who stands up for the rule of law and our long-cherished American values.  I believe Eric Holder will be that kind of Attorney General.

The rationales for holding up and opposing this nomination have shifted over time, since Karl Rove called for partisan opposition.   Now it seems that some Republican Senators want the Nation’s chief prosecutor to agree that he will turn a blind eye to possible lawbreaking before investigating whether it occurred.  Senator Whitehouse is quite right that what Senator Cornyn and others are now asking for is a pledge no prosecutor should give.  No Senator should demand such a bargain for his vote.  Senators can vote in favor or they can ignore the needs of the country and the qualifications of the nominee and vote against, but no one should be seeking to trade a vote for such a pledge.  

When he designated Mr. Holder, President Obama said: “The Attorney General serves the American people.  And I have every expectation that Eric will protect our people, uphold the public trust, and adhere to our Constitution.”  I have no doubt that Mr. Holder understands the serious responsibilities of the Attorney General of the United States and that his experience and integrity will serve him and the American people well.  

I reserve the balance of my time.

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