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With The End In Sight, Holder Reflects On His Legacy

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, shown speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference on Friday, will be stepping down from his position as soon as a replacement is appointed.
T.J. Kirkpatrick
Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, shown speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference on Friday, will be stepping down from his position as soon as a replacement is appointed.

A day after Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation, he made a long-planned visit to Scranton, Penn.

That's where he won his first big trial as a young public corruption prosecutor nearly 40 years ago. And he says coming to this federal courthouse now, returning to the site of his earliest legal success, makes sense.

"This, for me, was ... almost like completing a circle," he says. "I came here as a young and inexperienced trial lawyer and I came back as the head of the agency that I had just joined back in 1978."

After those early years, Holder reached nearly every goal he set for himself. He became the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and then the deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. Finally, in February 2009, he became the first African-American attorney general.

The job, he says, is the best he'll ever have — one that shaped him as a lawyer and a person.

All that ran through his mind, Holder says, when he stood next to President Obama Thursday afternoon at the ceremony that announced his resignation.

"All of that was coming together, and made yesterday very emotional," he says. "It made me very concerned I was not going to be able to get through my remarks."

During that announcement, Holder looked down and bit his lip when Obama referenced his late father, an immigrant who raised the family in a modest home in Elmhurst, Queens.

He says his father was denied a seat in a whites-only train car while he was in military uniform.

"He was a guy who didn't finish high school, who always put a great value on education," Holder says. "He tried to hide that from us. I didn't know that, actually, until I got to college."

Holder talks about his mother, too. She lived long enough to see him become attorney general but grew sick and died before what Holder views as his most significant civil rights accomplishments.

He's sorry his parents couldn't be there to see him stand next to the president Thursday.

"I was talking to my brother last night about this and I said ... 'I would give five years of my life for them to spend five minutes at that ceremony, to see what their little boys had accomplished,' " he says, choking up. "That was emotional, also ... I was cognizant of the fact that she wasn't there."

Then, the attorney general turns to the work he still wants to do before he leaves once his successor is nominated and confirmed by the Senate.

That list starts with an ongoing review of the death penalty — a practice Holder personally opposes, but one he's authorized several times over the past five years.

President Obama asked Holder to look at capital punishment after three states botched executions earlier in the year.

But the attorney general gives the impression his review is going to talk about much more than how many drugs states should use in lethal injections.

"You know I think we have to look at some of the empirical evidence we have and see how effective is the death penalty as a deterrent," he says, "and what do we see from various states where the death penalty is used." That includes the impact on violent crime rates.

When asked what he most regrets, Holder immediately mentions a grim visit to a crime scene in Newtown, Conn. — the school where a gunman killed 20 children almost two years ago.

"My regret is that coming out of the horror that we saw personally did not result in the formulation and passage of reasonable gun safety measures," he says.

If he stays at the Justice Department through December, Eric Holder will be the third-longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history.

"I want to continue to be involved, talking about criminal justice issues and civil rights issues, to somehow figure out a way to bridge the gap between communities of color and law enforcement," Holder says. "My government service might be over, but I don't think my public life is."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.