Attorney General Holder Is Stepping Down at a Critical Moment for Civil Rights

Eric Holder's resignation comes as the Justice Department ramps up efforts to combat widespread racial and gender discrimination.

United States Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is planning to resign and will leave his post as soon as his successor is named, NPR reported Thursday.

Appointed and confirmed in 2009, Holder is the the first Black man to serve as attorney general. Political analysts and journalists credit him with revitalizing the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, especially its enforcement of housing, employment, and voting rights. His resignation comes at a critical time for the division, which has recently ramped up efforts to deal with police brutality and racial profiling after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and John Crawford III.

Under Holder’s watch, the Justice Department also re-focused efforts to combat threats against abortion clinic access by more heavily enforcing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Passed and signed into law in 1994 during the Clinton administration, the FACE Act makes it a federal crime to intentionally use force, threaten to use force, obstruct, intimidate, or interfere with anyone obtaining or providing reproductive health-care services. First-time offenders found guilty under the act can face up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine; the FACE Act also authorizes reproductive health-care providers, the state attorney general, and/or the Justice Department to bring civil lawsuits to federal court demanding an injunction or financial restitution for these activities.

During the Bush administration, civil and criminal prosecutions under the FACE Act declined by more than 75 percent to an average of just two a year. While Holder was in charge, however, the Justice Department prosecuted at least eight people annually under the statute, including Angel Dillard, an associate of Scott Roeder, who murdered Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in 2009.

Holder’s time at the Justice Department was not without controversy, however. During his tenure, which began at the height of the Great Recession, the department failed to prosecute Wall Street for crimes related to the country’s financial collapse. In addition, Holder defended the administration’s blanket surveillance techniques to Congress even while reportedly relying on information improperly gathered by the NSA to make non-terrorism-related cases against Americans. 

Holder, who told the New Yorker in February that he intended to step down sometime this year, has said he will stay on until his replacement is named. NBC reports that one early contender is President Obama’s close friend and colleague Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA), who is not up for re-election in November. The former chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Bill Clinton, Patrick is already familiar with the organization’s structure. He also has the added benefit of perceived support from federal law enforcement leaders, many of whom praised his handling of the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent investigation. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s possible successors include former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who earlier this year defended the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit before the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby.

Whoever takes the reins from Holder must be willing to continue and improve upon his prioritization of reproductive justice and civil rights at the federal level. At a time when the Roberts Court has thrown into doubt the constitutionality of abortion clinic buffer zones nationwide; when thanks to targeted regulation of clinic provider (TRAP) laws, there are fewer abortion clinics and providers; and when anti-choice activists are emboldened enough to protest at high schools, we can’t afford for the department to step back on FACE prosecutions, especially because the improvements under Holder remain far from adequate to address continuing threats of violence against clinics and providers.

With conservatives saying without shame that their goal in passing voter ID laws is to disenfranchise minority voters, we can’t afford to step back on voting rights enforcement. And given that it is still not safe to be a Black man in public, we can’t afford a step back on these very early steps toward demanding racial justice.

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