U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is in a hurry.
In February, he ordered the Justice Department to treat same-sex married couples the same way it treats straight ones. A few days later, he urged states to change laws to permit ex- convicts to vote. Two weeks ago, he lobbied a federal commission to reduce sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. And last week, he highlighted racial disparities in how preschoolers are disciplined in the classroom.
Civil rights, voting rights and reforming the criminal justice system are issues dear to Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general. And the rush to address them is an indication that the 63-year-old former judge is aware that his time is growing short -- whether he leaves office as soon as this year, as he has suggested, or stays through the end of President Barack Obama’s final term.
A recent medical scare adds urgency to his mission: Holder felt faint during a morning meeting in late February and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was treated for an elevated heart rate. He described the experience as “spooky.”
“It will happen to all of you at some point, you zoom past your 30th, 40th, 50th birthday. When you get to 60, there is a certain sense of mortality you have to come to grips with, when you realize you have more yesterdays than tomorrows,” he said in an interview. “There is a time pressure to get things done, that you don’t have forever. And when you couple that with an administration that is in a second term, that kind of reinforces the notion you really have to be focused, that you’ve got to be particular about how you are going to spend your time.”
Holder endured a torrent of Republican criticism during Obama’s first term over a bungled gun-selling sting on the Mexican border, failing to make the case for prosecuting Sept. 11 terror suspects in federal courts, and his department’s heavy-handed tactics that targeted reporters in leak investigations. In 2012, he became the first cabinet secretary to be held in contempt of Congress.
Critics such as Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said some of Holder’s latest efforts are fresh reasons he should be removed from office. “He refuses to enforce laws for what I consider to be political reasons,” Goodlatte said.
Holder has positioned himself at the vanguard of protecting racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians from discrimination, fixing what he considers related flaws in the justice system, sometimes without congressional action.
Last year, he sued North Carolina and Texas to overturn voter-identification laws that he says unfairly target minorities. And he instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level drug offenders in a way that triggered what he considers “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences.
In the interview, Holder said he hopes historians will conclude that he and his Justice Department lawyers “were appropriately aggressive in the tradition of Robert Kennedy” when it came to civil rights. A portrait of Kennedy, who served as attorney general during a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, hangs in Holder’s conference room.
Holder, whose hair has grown more gray in the job yet who remains trim from playing basketball and climbing five flights of stairs to his office, wouldn’t reveal his professional future. However, he spoke about the tensions between his private life -- wanting more time with his teenage son -- and his desire to see his programs reach fruition.
“I’m not wired in the way that, if I thought those initiatives were not on a glide path to success, I could leave,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t decide without discussing the matter with his wife, Sharon, a physician and a close friend of Michelle Obama, who’s a former hospital administrator. In the wake of the hospital stay, she ordered him to get more sleep.
Holder’s renewed vigor and focus is evident to aides and former advisers, who say he seems more ebullient than at any time during his five years as the nation’s top prosecutor.
“He is energized right now,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole. “He wants to use that time to make a difference. He wants to make sure these improvements get implemented. He is passionate about these issues, particularly in criminal justice reform.”
Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, says Holder is benefiting from a number of programs maturing at the same time and from Republicans training their fire on Obama’s health-care program -- instead of on him.
“He is delighted the stuff he has cared about for 30 years has taken center stage,” Raben said, “and he gets to push it.”
Holder’s health scare and his comments to reporters last year about staying “well into 2014” have led to speculation about potential replacements.
Cole; Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel; Deval Patrick, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts; and at least three Democratic U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, get mentioned by congressional and administration officials as qualified successors.
Still, White House and Senate staff, who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter, said there’s no active list of replacements.
Holder doesn’t act as if he’s about to leave.
He has been reaching out to Republicans and Democrats in Congress to pass legislation to amend the Voting Rights Act, a key provision of which was struck down in June by the Supreme Court.
The attorney general has also pitched eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and reducing prison terms for low-level drug offenders, which he says disproportionately affects blacks, as both a moral issue and a fiscal necessity: Almost one-third of the Justice Department’s $27.3 billion budget is dedicated to incarceration.
He welcomed Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and Tea Party ally, for a lunch of tomato soup and salmon at the Justice Department last month to discuss mandatory minimums and voting rights for felons who have finished their sentences.
“Even on some of the committees where I have had the greatest difficulty, there are people who are tired of the gridlock we have experienced the last few years and are looking for ways to work together,” Holder said.
Maybe not everybody.
“He has been extremely disappointing as attorney general,” said Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman. He criticized Holder’s management style and has called the attorney general’s testimony last year before his panel on tactics in leak investigations “deceptive and misleading.”
“There is a series of controversial and questionable investigations undertaken during the attorney general’s tenure that really cry out for leadership change at the Justice Department,” Goodlatte said. “He has not taken responsibility for those failings,” referring in particular to the “Fast and Furious” gun sting, which allowed weapons to get into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, and the leak probes.
Echoing complaints from other Republicans, Goodlatte chastised Holder for ignoring the will of Congress in not defending legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, and for telling prosecutors last year to file charges in such a way that they don’t lead to mandatory minimum sentences.
Holder said those decisions were right.
“What I’ve tried to do was develop initiatives and focuses that are important to me based on my life experience, professional experience and deficiencies I see in the system,” said Holder, who early in his career prosecuted federal corruption cases. He later served as a Superior Court judge in Washington during the height of the crack and crime wave of the 1980s that earned the city its macabre moniker, “The Nation’s Murder Capital.”
Holder added that he and Obama decided not to fight legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act because they felt the law was unconstitutional. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits.
Until Congress takes steps to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, Holder said he feels obligated to instruct prosecutors to try to avoid unfair punishments.
“The positions that I have stood for have not been radical ones,” he said.
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