This post first appeared at The Nation.
When Eric Holder took over the Department of Justice, the Civil Rights Division, known as the crown jewel of the agency, was in shambles. Conservative political appointees in the Bush administration had forced out well-respected section chiefs. Longtime career lawyers left in droves, replaced by partisan hacks. Civil rights enforcement was virtually non-existent.
Holder made restoring the credibility of the Civil Rights Division a leading cause. “In the last eight years, vital federal laws designed to protect rights in the workplace, the housing market and the voting booth have languished,” he said at his confirmation hearing. “Improper political hiring has undermined this important mission. That must change. And I intend to make this a priority as attorney general.”
Enforcing the Voting Rights Act became a key priority for Holder’s Justice Department. In 2012, it successfully challenged Texas’s voter ID law, South Carolina’s voter ID law and Florida’s cutbacks to early voting under the VRA.
When the Supreme Court gutted the VRA last June, Holder vowed an aggressive response. “We will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action — using every legal tool that remains available to us — against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise,” Holder said at a press conference afterward.
Since the Shelby County decision, the Justice Department has filed suit against restrictive voting laws in Texas and North Carolina and joined lawsuits challenging new voting restrictions in Ohio and Wisconsin.
This cause was personal to Holder. His sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, was one of two African-American students to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963. “I so wish Vivian had lived to see this moment,” Holder said in Selma after Obama’s election.
As a sign of that commitment to civil rights and voting rights, Holder called Representative John Lewis and Ethel Kennedy to personally tell them he was stepping down. Since there’s no sign that the current attack on voting rights is abating, hopefully it is a commitment that his successor will share.
Holder generated a lot of controversy in many areas — some of it justified, much of it not. His defense of voting rights deserves to be remembered as one of the most consequential aspects of his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official.