U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation in September after six years in the administration of President Barack Obama, during which time Holder presided over the response to the 2008 financial crisis, the War on Terror and, most recently, the national furor over race relations in the criminal justice system. In an interview with The Hoya, Holder, the first black Attorney General, reflected on his time in the Cabinet.
Of what accomplishments are you most proud?
I think what we’ve done in criminal justice reform, in starting not only the conversation but a substantive change in that area, making the justice system more fair, more economical, more efficient.
The work we’ve done with civil rights, especially with regard to the protection of the right to vote. What we’ve done for our LGBT citizens, trying to make their lives better: marriage equality is obviously something that we are arguing for.
And the way in which we’ve done our national security work. We’ve done work in a way that is consistent with our values. We don’t use enhanced interrogation techniques or torture, something the president said very early on, that we would keep our nation safe but do so in a way that is consistent with our values.
Some have criticized the president’s use of executive power, for example, in immigration. I assume you expect the president’s actions to be upheld in court. But do you think that inaction in Congress is a sufficient basis for action by the president?
I think that the president has a unique responsibility to promote the national welfare, and in the absence of action by Congress, and in the obvious presence of the ability for the president to act, it would almost be irresponsible of him not to use that power to benefit the nation.
If you look at the number of times in which he has used executive power as opposed to, say, Teddy Roosevelt, Roosevelt dwarfed him in terms of the number of executive actions that he used to try to move the nation in a way that a reluctant Congress was, and [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] did the same thing.
One of the major cases during your early years came in response to the financial crisis, and many feel that the Justice Department let brokers and elites on Wall Street off the hook for their involvement in the crisis. Do you agree? Why did you make the decision you did?
I would say I don’t agree with that. If you look at the statistics, we indicted a number of individuals for conduct related to the financial crisis. We extracted record penalties from financial institutions. [On Feb. 17] I directed U.S. attorneys who were involved in the residential mortgage-backed securities to take 90 days to look at all the cases that they had been working on in those institutions to see if they could bring cases against individuals, and I think they will report to my successor whether or not they can make these cases towards individuals.
You are the first black attorney general, and you presided over a time when race relations and law enforcement have emerged in the national consciousness. How can the criminal justice system regain the faith of minorities that are disproportionately arrested? How can you improve the relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve without alienating police officers?
There’s a real desire on the part of everybody for better relationships, and so it’s a question of having some hard conversations, sharing some hard truths, and getting people to just work together.
Police officers go into policing for altruistic reasons, and people in our most blighted communities have the greatest need for police protection. You would think that those two things would marry up, but for some reason that has not been the case, so it is something that we have to focus our attention on. The president has. I would bet that, by the end of his second term, police-community relations will be in a better place. They won’t be perfect, but we’re starting to see the beginnings of a positive change.
During the campaign in 2008, then-Senator Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia about the state of race relations in the United States. You responded saying, “I wish my father had been alive to hear this.” Why was the speech so powerful to you?
I thought it was as clear an explanation of the race problem in the United States as I had ever seen a major figure give, and it was the kind of speech that I thought all Americans needed to hear. It would have been something reaffirming for my father given all the things that he had been through in his life.
First off, to see a major presidential candidate who was African-American giving the speech would have been something he would have thought [was] pretty powerful, but the message itself was extremely positive, frank, balanced, and it would have been something that he would have enjoyed. If he was not before, he would have been converted into an Obama supporter after that speech.
Despite disapproval from certain members of Congress, D.C. just legalized marijuana, primarily because of the disproportionate effect of the War on Drugs on minority populations within the District. What is your assessment of the War on Drugs, and is the country moving towards legalization — or at the very least, decriminalization? What is the relationship of the Justice Department to state legislation?
What we have said with regard to state legislation with what we’ve seen in Colorado and Washington is that we have limited resources: almost every drug case that is made in America can be brought into federal courts, but that is not a good use of our limited resources. So what we’ve done is set up a series of eight or nine factors, and if one of those factors is implicated under a particular fact situation, we will take federal action.
But in the absence of that, we will leave to our state counterparts their ability to enforce their own laws. We have said to Colorado and to Washington to experiment, but we reserve the right to pre-empt those laws if we think they are not being carried out in a way that is consistent with the way that you have set up your regulations.
Whether or not the country ultimately legalizes marijuana, I don’t know. I think there is certainly a generational change that is going on and certainly more study needs to be done so that we base marijuana policy on the best scientific research as opposed to myths about what marijuana does to people. So, hopefully with this better understanding of the impact of marijuana, we can come up with a better law enforcement policy.
Last week, at your departure ceremony, the president highlighted your personal qualities. As a judge and attorney general, how did these qualities of morality come into play when you made the difficult legal decisions that you had to make?
As you get older, everything that you’ve done before has an impact on how you view the world. I was a judge in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Washington was considered the murder capital, when crack wars were in effect, and became attorney general after that.
I saw young black men who should have been the future of this community going off to jail in record numbers. I saw violence that was racking certain communities. Those experiences were searing ones for me and always led me to believe that we have to protect our citizens from that kind of violence but also from the poise in which we prevent young people from getting involved in the system. And if they do become involved in the system, come up with ways in which we make them productive citizens at the end of the time in the time that they spent incarcerated. So I’ve tried to base Justice Department policy, at least in part, on some of those experiences.
What advice do you have for young people who see conflict and partisanship and wonder if their lives will be as good as the lives of their parents?
With the widening gap that we see in this country of income inequality, there is a legitimate question of whether or not the next generation will have it better. But we have really talented young people who are entrepreneurs and are creative and have great ideas about things that we can’t even begin to imagine will come to exist years from now. The American people are an ingenious group, we are industrious, and if any country has a shot at making it better for the next generation, I think it is true for this country.
But it is important that we remain true to who we are, which means having an immigration system that works, welcoming people from around the world who have great ideas and who constantly revitalize this nation. We’re not a homogenous, closed, old nation. We are young and dynamic, and as long as we continue to be, I think we will increase the chances that we will make things better for the next generation.
What are your expectations for the remainder of President Obama’s term, and how do you think history will evaluate President Obama’s administration?
I expect that he is going to be a very involved and active president. He is not a guy who can coast. I think history is going to be very kind to him. Historians will see that he came into office during a financial crisis the likes of which we had not seen since the Great Depression, and he managed that extremely well. He put in place a healthcare system for the first time. He’s managed our foreign policy extremely well; he’s asked questions about domestic policy; he’s moved the needle on a whole bunch of places, and I think he will be seen as a great president.
Do you expect any openings on the Supreme Court, and would you be interested in an appointment to the Court?
I would bet that over the next presidency, there would be maybe a couple of vacancies on the Supreme Court, which is why I think the 2016 election is so important. That president, I think, will make maybe two selections to the court, which potentially change the court from five to four conservative to five to four progressive.
I absolutely do not want to be a member of the Supreme Court. I was a judge for five years, and there is not enough money in the world for me to want to become a judge again.
What are you most looking forward to as you prepare to return to life as a private citizen?
Trying to reclaim some of my anonymity, just to be regular old Eric again, being able to walk down the street without a security detail, look at stores, drive my car, and just be a regular person. I miss that.
What advice do you have for your successor? [Editor’s Note: U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch was nominated as Holder’s successor by President Obama in November. Lynch, who would be the first black woman to be attorney general, was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee Feb. 26. While her confirmation vote in front of the entire Senate has yet to be scheduled, it is expected to occur within the next two weeks.]
Loretta Lynch is a great lawyer, so I would say she needs to base her actions on her experience and worldview, and that she should be unafraid. She’ll anger some people with some of the things she needs to do; she’ll have people who support her, but if she works with the great men and women of this department and focuses on the priorities that I know she has and not get distracted by the noise here in Washington, D.C., she’ll be just fine.