December 3, 2008
The Next Attorney General
If he is confirmed by the Senate as attorney general, Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for the job, will inherit a Justice Department that has been mired in scandal and that has seriously lost its way in critical areas. Under President Bush, the department has been used to defend the indefensible, like indefinite detention and torture of prisoners, and to undermine rather than protect Americans’ cherished rights. Mr. Holder could be an exemplary choice to face this daunting agenda, but he must answer serious questions before the Senate votes on his confirmation.
Mr. Holder, who would be the first African-American attorney general, has a particularly good record of public service for this job. He has been a United States attorney for the District of Columbia, a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s public integrity section and a deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton.
He has been outspoken on the most critical issue facing the department: restoring the rule of law. In a speech in June, he described the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies as “excessive and unlawful.” And he has called for closing the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
But senators should ask Mr. Holder to square those views with comments he made after the Sept. 11 attacks when he defended the Bush administration’s prisoner policies by declaring that “you can think of these people as combatants and we are in the middle of a war.”
Americans need to know that Mr. Holder does not believe that detainees can be held indefinitely without being brought before a judge — and that he would stand up for the Constitution when times are tough.
There are other aspects of Mr. Holder’s record that are of concern, starting with his role in Mr. Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, a billionaire financier who had fled the country rather than face federal tax-evasion charges whose ex-wife, Denise Rich, had contributed heavily to the Clinton presidential library and the Democratic Party. [Blog editor's note: This occurred in the context of Clinton's failure to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier.]
The Senate needs to probe that serious lapse in judgment closely to seek assurances that Mr. Holder will be unyielding about keeping political influence out of the Justice Department, which was shamefully politicized under Alberto Gonzales.
In addition to signing off on torture memos and depriving detainees of basic rights, the Bush Justice Department adopted legal positions that greatly expanded executive power. These policies must be quickly undone. The next attorney general also will have to get to the bottom of the department’s disgraceful record of politicized hiring and firing. The attorney general will need to ensure that the investigation of the firings of United States attorneys for what appear to be partisan reasons is thorough and credible, and that witnesses who have been defying subpoenas, including Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, testify under oath.
There already are people — mainly Republicans — who say investigating these matters would be divisive. But the department’s integrity cannot be restored until the truth comes out and any wrongdoers are punished.
Many parts of the Justice Department must be pointed in a new direction. In the Bush years, the voting rights section worked against voting rights. The civil rights division too often sat idly by, or supported the wrong side, when rights were infringed. The antitrust division all but abandoned its responsibility to protect the public from the harm of monopoly power.
The attorney general is the nation’s top law enforcement official. The Senate must make sure that Mr. Holder is committed to the right kind of change in that job.
Source URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/opinion/03wed1.html?_r=1_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss