Yesterday, former United States Attorney General Eric Holder discussed his legacy and views on current politics with a UChicago law professor at the Gordon Parks Arts Hall’s assembly lobby.
The Institute of Politics (IOP)–hosted event was introduced by David Axelrod, whose time as senior advisor in the Obama administration overlapped with Holder’s time as attorney general. Holder joined professor David Strauss, co-editor of the Supreme Court Review, to speak about his tenure as attorney general and his hopes for the future directions of the issues he targeted while in office.
Holder described his experience entering a Department of Justice (DOJ) that had been profoundly affected by September 11 and overtaken by partisan hiring practices, which he eliminated by ensuring that hiring decisions would be made only by career members of the department. He went on to criticize what he saw as attacks on voting rights in the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which removed sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 intended to prevent discrimination.
“I think what we’re seeing now is another attempt to somehow disenfranchise, or make more difficult the voting process for people of color, for young people, people who have Democratic leanings,” Holder said.
Asked about his handling of government leaks, Holder defended his reputation for harshness in prosecuting individuals like Edward Snowden, whose actions he said had dangerous consequences for national security. Holder pointed out that although he is often criticized for bringing more cases against leakers than all previous presidential administrations combined, he still presided over only six individual trials and rejected many more. He also noted that he had personally ensured that the DOJ never prosecuted journalists who shared leaked information for doing their jobs.
Holder spent much of the discussion addressing the issue of police violence and community relations. Asked whether the federal government has any role in handling issues involving local police departments, he said that police generally want to do things “the right way” with regard to their communities, but that this can sometimes require outside training and federal efforts to break down unhealthy cultures of abuse. Speaking about allocating federal resources to improve local police departments, Holder said, “I think for the money that you invest, the return is exponentially better.”
Responding after the discussion to an audience question about whether any country provides a better model for political enfranchisement than the U.S., Holder affirmed his faith in the country and said that his criticisms should not be taken as indictments. Holder also said that he continues to believe in the potential for significant improvement, and told the audience that this responsibility falls partly on them.
“I’m always hopeful that this country, as good as it is, can be made better; it’s what I’ve tried to commit my life to, it’s what I think you should commit your lives to. You can’t be passive in this fight for progress: you’ve always got to ask tough questions, be able to face hard truths, and be prepared to engage.”