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Victories For LGBT, Civil Rights Among Holder's Legacy


A major personnel announcement at the White House today. Attorney General Eric Holder will leave after running the Justice Department for more than five years. After President Obama announced the resignation today, Holder was emotional as he reflected on the job.


ERIC HOLDER: I have loved the Department of Justice ever since - as a young boy. I watched Robert Kennedy prove during the civil rights movement how the department can and must always be a force for that which is right.

BLOCK: And joining me to talk about Holder's decision is NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, Eric Holder - part of the original Obama cabinet, he's been there from the beginning - why is he leaving now? And how soon might he be stepping down?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Melissa, Holder - he has wanted to leave, on and off, over the course of the last five and a half years. And he said he didn't expect to serve for the entire two terms of President Obama. He's leaving now because he feels like he's accomplished a lot. And he says he's going to remain in place until the Senate confirms a successor, which could last through this year and into next year.

BLOCK: And what's the reaction been today to the news of his resignation.

JOHNSON: Well, Republicans in Congress have a very different take on Holder's record than civil rights leaders do. And, in fact, Darrell Issa - a Republican from California - has called him the most divisive attorney general in our nation's modern history. Issa, of course, squared off against Holder over a gun trafficking scandal known as Fast and Furious, which led to Holder being rebuked by the U.S. House - the first cabinet member ever to be rebuked or cited in contempt. Chuck Grassley, Senator from Iowa, has said he wished Holder had more respect for the law. And he said that he hopes President Obama will not seek to push a nominee through this lame duck session this year of the Senate, and instead wait until 2015. As you might expect, Melissa, senior Democrats in the Senate, including Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, do not want to wait that long.

BLOCK: It was a remarkable thing to look at today, when you realized you have the country's first African-American president announcing the resignation of the country's first African-American attorney general. When you think about Eric Holder's legacy, along with the controversies that you mention, what comes most to mind?

JOHNSON: Civil rights, voting rights and LGBT rights, Melissa - a simple and short list. Eric Holder is married to Sharon Malone, a Washington physician. Her sister, Vivian Malone, helped integrate the University of Alabama decades ago and is a civil rights icon. Eric Holder made that a key portion of his tenure. He sued Texas and North Carolina over what he perceived to be restricting - restrictive voting laws. He refused to defend a federal law in the books that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, a decision that may, someday, pave the way for the legality of gay marriage across the country - a federal constitutional right for gay marriage. And finally, Melissa, he spent a lot of time dealing with law enforcement and interactions with communities of color, both in Ferguson, Missouri, not so long ago and in about 20 other cities around the country. I'm told by his friends he wants that to be a part of his work after he leaves the Justice Department too.

BLOCK: What are you hearing in terms of names of possible successors?

JOHNSON: Mostly people who have strong ties to the Obama administration and legal circles. So for instance, former White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler, former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkin, who would be the first openly gay or lesbian attorney general, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and last but not least, Melissa, the current Solicitor General Don Verrilli, who is the Obama administration's leading representative before the Supreme Court.

BLOCK: As you say, Carrie, you would expect the possible confirmation process to take quite some time?

JOHNSON: Well, I'm told by folks close to the administration that they expect a nomination within days or weeks. It's not at all clear how quickly the Senate will take up that nomination at this point.

BLOCK: OK. NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.