A little over a year and a half ago, in a piece analyzing the Justice Department transition from Clinton to Bush, I wrote:

Unsurprisingly, one factor that is very seldom discussed in Election 2008 coverage is how the candidates would treat the DoJ if elected, both ideologically and logistically. Perhaps it’s time for Wolf Blitzer and the cats at CNN to ask a question about human trafficking, mandatory minimums, restricted access to civil courts, wire-tapping, or racial discrimination…

The Bush precedent has hopefully taught all of the candidates two lessons: first, that a multi-dimensional DoJ cannot be taken for granted, and, second, that effective policymaking largely hinges on the competency of the choice for Attorney General.

I think a join a good number of people in arguing that Eric Holder, President-elect Obama’s choice to be the next Attorney General, is just the sort of competent and experienced legal mind needed to restore the Justice Department to its Clintonian roots as a civil rights watchdog. A lot of what I wrote in that post was a reaction to a piece in that morning’s New York Times, which drew attention to the fact that the Bush DoJ seemed to be pushing civil rights litigators out the door in favor of so-called “holy hires” who specialized in religious advocacy. The Times indexed a number of consequences of what it called a “mission change” in the Bush Justice Department:

[Increased intervention] in federal court cases on behalf of religion-based groups like the Salvation Army that assert they have the right to discriminate in hiring in favor of people who share their beliefs even though they are running charitable programs with federal money.

Supporting groups that want to send home religious literature with schoolchildren; in one case, the government helped win the right of a group in Massachusetts to distribute candy canes as part of a religious message that the red stripes represented the blood of Christ.

Vigorously enforcing a law enacted by Congress in 2000 that allows churches and other places of worship to be free of some local zoning restrictions. The division has brought more than two dozen lawsuits on behalf of churches, synagogues and mosques.

Taking on far fewer hate crimes and cases in which local law enforcement officers may have violated someone’s civil rights.

Sharply reducing the complex lawsuits that challenge voting plans that might dilute the strength of black voters. The department initiated only one such case through the early part of this year, compared with eight in a comparable period in the Clinton administration.

Again, Holder seems like just the right choice to reframe civil rights as a departmental priority. As a 1L at Columbia Law School in 1974, Holder worked at the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights organization with a reputation for community-based change. A vocal critic of the warrantless wire tap program, Holder is also on the record railing against the USA PATRIOT Act. He told CNN:

When you look at some of the things that have done under the spirit of the [Patriot Act], where you detain citizens without giving them access to a lawyer, where you listen in on attorney-client conversations without involving a judge, these are the kinds of things that have been done in the name of the Patriot Act by this administration that I think are bad ultimately for law enforcement and will cost us the support of the American people…

In short, my argument is that we now have a near-perfect candidate, uniquely equipped to restore the Justice Department’s critical role in protecting civil rights. I think that if you had asked Neil Lewis, who wrote that article for the Times, to give you the name of someone who could lead the DoJ back to its core mission, he might very well have said Eric Holder.

This is especially good news considering that it now appears as though Senate Republicans, after first signaling that Holder’s nomination may be derailed by the Marc Rich pardon, have now acquiesced to the appointment. Expect Holder to be confirmed shortly after the Inauguration, and the DoJ’s policy priorities to begin radically shifting not long after.


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