US Attorney General Eric Holder. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Senate this evening confirmed Eric H. Holder Jr. as the nation's first African American Attorney General in a vote of 75 to 21, opening a new chapter for a Justice Department that had suffered under allegations of improper political influence and controversial policy decisions on wiretapping and harsh interrogation practices.
Holder, 58, will arrive at the Justice Department headquarters in Washington tomorrow for a swearing in ceremony and to greet some of the department's 110,000 employees.
"The need for new leadership at the Department of Justice is as critical today as it's ever been," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, on the Senate floor this afternoon. "This confirmation is going to do a great deal to restore the morale and the purpose throughout the department."
The Senate vote occurred four days after Holder overcame concerns by a small but vocal group of GOP lawmakers over his position on national security and gun rights, as well as his recommendations in two controversial Clinton clemency decisions. After delaying consideration of the nomination for a week, the Judiciary panel ultimately voted 17 to 2 Thursday to advance Holder's bid to serve as the country's chief law enforcement officer.
Holder's advocates marshaled critical support from a broad base of federal and state law enforcement groups as well as a bipartisan coalition of former Justice Department leaders, including onetime deputy attorney general James B. Comey, FBI director Louis Freeh and Bush national security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend.
By all accounts, Holder is among the most credentialed lawyers ever to become Attorney General. He began his career as a public corruption prosecutor before serving as U.S. Attorney in the District and as a Superior Court judge. Holder later operated as second in command at the Justice Department during the later years of the Clinton Administration.
But his service in the Clinton years invited criticism from GOP lawmakers, who also questioned his approach to hot button terrorism policies.
At a grueling, seven-hour hearing last month, flanked by his wife and three young children, Holder labeled the simulated drowning technique called waterboarding "torture" and vowed to make national security his top priority.
Holder also said that he would look askance at efforts to "criminalize policy differences" but did not conclusively rule out prosecution of Bush Administration officials for their involvement in detainee questioning and warrantless surveillance operations. That issue emerged as a pivot point for conservatives such as Sen. John Cornyn (Tx.) who today voted in opposition to Holder.
Government officials "need to know the law is not going to change....I worry about Mr. Holder's shifting opinions, and about the effect it will have on intelligence officials," Cornyn said.
Another "nay" vote came from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.). On the Senate floor this afternoon, Coburn concluded that Holder's recommendation of "neutral leaning toward favorable" in the last minute 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich "should disqualify him from higher office."
"I believe in summary that independence is lacking, judgment is lacking and candor is lacking," Coburn said.
A significant number of Republicans disagreed and supported Holder, along with an overwhelming majority of Democrats who cast all of their votes with Holder today. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Ca.) said this afternoon that she "had never seen a more qualified nominee....I don't think you can beat these credentials."
From day one Holder will have a full plate of work.
President Barack Obama already has put the Attorney General in charge of a government-wide task force deliberating where to send nearly 250 terrorism suspects detained at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama last month instructed officials to close the prison within one year. In another change from the Bush administration, lawyers said, the Attorney General will have a permanent formal role on the National Security Council.
Holder also will play a critical role in developing new legal guidelines for interrogation practices and in deciding whether the Obama administration will adopt broad claims of executive power in court cases over warrantless eavesdropping and the firings of nine prosecutors during the Bush years.
Holder last month vowed to revitalize the department's troubled civil rights division, which is supposed to enforce voting and employment laws for minorities. Morale at the unit plunged during the Bush years and the Justice Department Inspector General in January issued a report detailing hiring abuses and racial epithets that proliferated among some former officials there.
Holder's late sister in law, Vivian Malone Jones, worked for a time at the civil rights division four decades ago, after she graduated from the University of Alabama, where she faced down vicious and sometimes violent crowds as one of two black students to integrate the school.
He also may spend significant time and energy pushing back against calls from liberal Democrats who want a reckoning for what they perceive as Bush era legal abuses. Holder has charted a middle path on many of those issues, including a pledge to honor legal immunity for telephone companies that helped the government conduct electronic surveillance and support for several provisions of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which is set to expire later this year.