05.13.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Eric H. Holder Jr.’s Service as Attorney General of the United States

Two weeks ago, Loretta Lynch was finally sworn in as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States.  I am confident that she will be an exceptional Attorney General, and she has wasted no time getting to work on many of the most pressing law enforcement issues facing our nation.  Given that is it Police Week, I wanted to say a few words in tribute to the remarkable service of Eric Holder, our outgoing Attorney General.  He came to the Justice Department as a 25-year-old law school graduate in 1976, and he served at nearly every level of the Department over the last four decades. 

When Eric Holder’s nomination was first announced in 2008, I said that we needed an Attorney General who, as Robert Jackson said 68 years ago, “serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.”  That is the kind of man Eric Holder is and the kind of Attorney General he has been.  He understands our moral and legal obligation to protect the fundamental rights of all Americans and to respect the human rights of all people.  His leadership over the last six years has shown us that.

Upon being sworn in as the 82nd Attorney General, Eric Holder immediately changed the tone of the Department.  His decision to dismiss charges brought by the Bush administration against former Senator Ted Stevens because of prosecutorial misconduct was a courageous decision.  It sent a strong message that prosecutorial misconduct would not be tolerated under his watch, and that the Department would adhere to the highest ethical standards.

It is this sense of fairness that led Attorney General Holder to restore what he fondly refers to as the “conscience” of the nation – the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.  His work on voting rights is among the most important of his tenure, and in the last six years he had his work cut out for him.  After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County decision, Attorney General Holder recommitted the Justice Department to safeguarding the right to vote for every American.  Fighting to protect the equal rights of all Americans is not a new cause.  It is as deep as his family roots. His late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, fought against segregation and for equal rights as a college student seeking admittance to the University of Alabama in 1963.  I know that Eric is deeply proud of her, and of the countless brave men and women who fought for equal voting rights and civil rights for every American.  Each generation has its trailblazers who contribute to our march toward equality.  And I believe that history will count Eric Holder among those patriots.

Attorney General Holder did not simply look to correct the misguided practices of the previous administration.  He brought this Nation forward with an acute understanding that the fight for civil rights is not a single movement five decades ago.  The march continues.  Attorney General Holder recognized that the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which discriminated against Americans simply for who they loved, could no longer be defended by the Justice Department.  The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 3 of DOMA vindicated his decision.  Some argued that it was the Department’s duty to defend the constitutionality of that statute.  But just as our country came to see separate as inherently unequal, Attorney General Holder’s decision will only be further vindicated with time.  Discrimination has no place in our laws.  Rooting it out takes the kind of leadership that Eric Holder is known for.

He also recognized the inequities in our criminal justice system and the consequences of mass incarceration.  Our Federal prisons are nearly 40 percent overcapacity and consume over one quarter of the Justice Department’s budget.  This growth has been largely driven by our misplaced reliance on drug mandatory minimums, which too often sees no difference between couriers and kingpins.  Attorney General Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative has been an essential step toward addressing these problems.  No Attorney General in our Nation’s history has recognized the inequities in our criminal justice system more than Eric Holder, and he has proven that addressing these inequities leads to a more effective system.  With Eric Holder as our Nation’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer, last year, for the first time in 40 years, the overall crime rate and overall incarceration rate declined together.

Attorney General Holder’s commitment to fairness went beyond sentencing reform.  When he visited Ferguson, he brought calm in the midst of chaos and fear.  He helped to bridge distrust between law enforcement and the Ferguson community.  He also deserves praise for the Justice Department’s investigation and reporting of the systemic problems in Ferguson.  His work made the city of Ferguson reassess its practices and provided a path forward for both law enforcement and the broader community alike.

I share Attorney General Holder’s belief that we should not be afraid to prosecute terrorists in our Federal courts in accordance with the rule of law.  With his leadership we proved we can hold terrorists accountable by making them answer for their crimes in public, for the world to see.  During Attorney General Holder’s tenure, the Department of Justice secured over 180 terrorism-related convictions.  His dedication to upholding the rule of law, even under the most difficult circumstances, is arguably one of his most enduring legacies.    

Attorney General Holder’s leadership ensured that the most vulnerable Americans were protected by the Justice Department, including those who have suffered from hate crimes, domestic violence, and human trafficking.  He guided the Department’s steadfast implementation of vital legislation we passed, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.  These historic civil rights bills greatly expanded protections for the LGBT community, for rape victims, and for Native American domestic violence victims.  We could not have passed them without his commitment and the implementation of these laws he directed was been swift and powerful. 

When Eric Holder returned to the Justice Department as its new Attorney General in 2009 career attorneys lined the hallways to welcome back one of their own with loud applause.  It had been a very difficult time for the department during the Bush administration with scandals in politicized hiring, the decimating of the Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney firing scandal, and legal opinions defending the use of torture.  Six years later on his final day at the Department, these career prosecutors again lined the hallways in gratitude for his work to restore the integrity of the Department.  He left the Justice Department with a sense that it is now living up to its name.  I am thankful for his dedicated and unwavering service to our country.  We are a better nation because of Eric Holder’s leadership.

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