The Justice Department said Holder, 63, finalized his plan to step down during an hour-long conversation with President Barack Obama. Holder is one of the longest-serving members of the Obama cabinet and the fourth-longest tenured attorney general in US history.
Holder’s legacy includes historic progress on civil rights and criminal justice reform issues. He refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a discriminatory federal law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. He sued North Carolina and Texas over restrictive voter identification laws which disproportionately disenfranchised minority, student and elderly voters.
Holder also launched some 20 federal probes targeting police brutality and other misconduct, most recently in Ferguson, Missouri, where a long legacy of mistrust between the St. Louis suburb’s black residents and nearly all-white police force came to a boil following the recent police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown. He also pressed for a reduction in prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and an end to mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level drug offenders.
Under Holder’s tenure, the federal prison population decreased for the first time since President Ronald Reagan ramped up the ‘War on Drugs’ and ushered in the era of mass incarceration in the 1980s.
But Holder was also a tremendously controversial and polarizing figure. Some of his actions infuriated conservatives, including his initial decision to try the alleged September 11 plotters in a New York civilian court just blocks from Ground Zero, a decision that was later reversed under intense pressure. He sent the cases back to the Guantánamo Bay military commission system, which has been described as “rigged” by numerous military justice officers who have resigned their posts in protest.
As is the case with President Obama, there is a racial element to at least some of the animus against Holder. He inflamed many conservatives when he delivered a Black History Month address in which he called America a “nation of cowards” for its failure to honestly confront enduring race relation issues.
Holder’s actions often did not help him win conservative friends. His refusal to hand over documents related to the Fast and Furious gun trafficking scandal, for example, resulted in a contempt vote by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Even among some progressives, Holder was considered a disappointment on issues including the DOJ’s targeting of state-legal medical marijuana, his 9/11 trials reversal, the government’s refusal to prosecute or even adequately investigate Bush-era torturers, its aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers and his refusal to prosecute Wall Street banker for the systemic fraud which precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis.
Holder still has work to do before stepping down. NPR reports he is expected to release long-awaited racial profiling guidelines for federal agents. He is also expected to notify federal prosecutors that the DOJ will no longer require defendants who plead guilty to waive their right to appeal due to ineffective legal counsel.
Holder has served 26 years at the DOJ, working at nearly every level. He has served as a corruption prosecutor, and was appointed US Attorney for Washington DC by President Bill Clinton. In 1997, he was named deputy attorney general.
“I hope I’ve done a good job,” Holder said in a recent ABC interview. “I’ve certainly tried to do as good a job as I can. There are sacrifices that I’ve had to make, that my family has had to make.”
President Obama is expected to make a statement about Holder’s resignation at the White House Thursday afternoon.