On Thursday night, former Attorney General Eric Holder participated in a Zoom conversation with members of the Bowdoin community. Holder is best known for his service during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2015 as the first African American Attorney General in United States history, but he has also served in previous presidential administrations, including as Deputy Attorney General during the Clinton administration and as Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia during the Reagan administration.
The event was moderated and hosted by Assistant Professor of Government Maron Sorenson. Sponsors included the President’s Office and the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good. Sorenson prepared and asked a majority of the questions for Holder, but others were submitted via email prior to the event or through the event’s live chat function.
Holder’s opening comments focused on his personal perception of the role of the attorney general and how it informed his time in the position.
“First and foremost, the Attorney General of the U.S. has to perceive himself or herself as the lawyer for the people, not the lawyer for the president,” Holder said.
He recounted how during his Senate confirmation process, then-Chair of the Judiciary Committee U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) reminded him that he was going to be “the Attorney General, and not the Secretary of Justice.”
“The power of the Attorney General is very awesome, and it has to be used in a neutral, non-partisan way,” Holder added. “The Attorney General has the responsibility to make sure that equal justice is something that’s more than just a concept.”
When asked about striking a balance between public accountability and executive privilege, Holder noted that he has always leaned towards being transparent with the public.
“You can lose yourself in these big jobs,” Holder said. “But you have to always remember that you are a servant of the people … so erring on the side of transparency and openness is something that I’ve always tried to do.”
Holder expressed concern that there had been a decline in the transparency of the Department of Justice’s decision-making process under the Trump administration, as well as an absence of congressional oversight.
“The failure of Congress in this administration to engage in robust oversight has been a real failing,” Holder said. “So many of the things that have been contravened by this president are not breaking of laws as so much contravening of norms.”
Holder then turned toward a discussion of racial justice in the United States, talking about Breonna Taylor, racial sensitivity training, police brutality and the overall state of civil rights in the United States today.
“We need to ask ourselves some hard questions and be prepared to face some difficult truths,” Holder said. “We need to look at the way race, on a systemic basis, still affects our criminal justice system,” he added.
Commenting on policies to address police brutality, Holder defended the usage of consent decrees during his time in charge of the Department of Justice and noted that, while he did not support removing qualified immunity, he did support adjusting the policy.
With President Trump’s comments about mail-in voting during the recent presidential debate as a transition, the conversation shifted to a broader discussion regarding voting rights and the state of the Voting Rights Act.
“[Having the option to vote by mail] is a logical thing given that we’re voting in the middle of a pandemic,” Holder said. “Delegitimizing, casting doubts about the fairness of voting by mail, calling out for monitors, intimidators, to participate in the process … all of this stuff gives me a great deal of concern between now, when voting has already started, and November 3.”
Holder also denounced obstacles to voting and addressed the role of celebrities taking on a greater role in providing access to voting.
“Our society when it comes to voting is in an inappropriate place. … We have things that we need to fix,” Holder said. “Are we going to rely on wealthy individuals to make sure that our voting system is fair? That’s a core government function!”
Holder’s emphasis on voting and electoral issues continued with a discussion on why he chose to commit himself to dealing with partisan gerrymandering after leaving public service through his involvement with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
“[Redistricting] is the infrastructure of our electoral system,” Holder said. “If I want to have an impact on [other issues], I need to really focus on the structures.”
Returning to the ongoing presidential election and the issues that emerged during the presidential debate, Holder elaborated on his involvement in choosing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to be Obama’s running mate, citing Biden’s long career in Washington, D.C., and foreign policy experience as among the main reasons.
Holder also expressed support for reforming the Supreme Court—if the Democratic Party wins the White House and the Senate—through expanding the court in the short run and establishing 18 year terms for Supreme Court justices to depoliticize the court.
Addressing the Department of Justice’s role in the use of force in the War on Terror, Holder elaborated on his role and responsibilities while Attorney General.
“[The Attorney General] formulates policy and makes sure that the policy that’s formulated is consistent with our laws,” Holder said, adding that congressional approval for the executive branch’s actions has largely declined. “It’s very difficult because you’re seized with the responsibility of keeping the American people safe … but you never want to do things that are inconsistent with the law and who we say we are as Americans.”
Sorenson followed up by asking about the drone strike on Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki, to which Holder answered that it was justified given the threat Awlaki possessed to the United States.
Looking to end the event on a positive note, Sorenson noted that the event was sponsored by the McKeen Center’s Bowdoin Public Service Initiative and asked Holder about the importance of public service.
“You don’t get to Bowdoin without having the ability to work hard, be focused and be disciplined, and having all those qualities makes you ideal public servants,” Holder said. “I actually think that you have not just the capacity, but the responsibility, to be great public servants.”
In closing, Holder referenced a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and reiterated the importance of civic engagement.
“Dr. King famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. It only bends when people like you put your hands on that arc and pull it toward justice,” Holder said. “I think that Bowdoin students, graduates and other people affiliated with this great college have the capacity to put their hands on that arc and pull it towards justice.”