Thursday, Feb. 05, 2009
By MICHAEL WEISSKOPF
Eric Holder Jr. was trained long ago in crime and punishment. He grew up in the East Elmhurst section of Queens, N.Y.–so populated by cops and firefighters that rush hour looked like the shift change at a station house. A popular teen prank was setting off the red fire-alarm box near his modest brick house on 101st Street. Nearly everyone tried it once, but not Eric, the churchgoing Boy Scout who knew the consequence of disobeying rules: “A good, quick smack on the bottom,” his mother Miriam recalls. “If you did something wrong, you’re going to have to pay a price.”
That rule guided Holder after he left Queens to become a corruption prosecutor, municipal judge and U.S. Attorney. And it will probably guide him as the nation’s 82nd Attorney General. Holder takes over a sprawling, 110,000-person Justice Department that was treated at times like a private law firm by the Bush Administration, both in its novel interpretation of the law and in the way it purged employees who did not share its political views. Returning to the department he helped run in the late 1990s, Holder invited all employees to his grand fifth-floor office to introduce themselves. “It’s good to be back,” he said in remarks sent around the building.
But Holder faces huge challenges and a ticking clock as the nation’s top lawyer. The most urgent is how to implement President Barack Obama’s decision to close the brig at Guantánamo in a year and try some 250 alleged terrorists who have been kept there indefinitely. Some of their cases are so sensitive that presenting evidence in open court could compromise national security. As details of Bush-era practices on rendition, torture and wiretapping become known, Holder will have to rewrite some of the most secret rules of engagement used by the U.S. against al-Qaeda while balancing Democrats calling for the prosecution of Bush officials who authorized those policies. Though Obama would rather look forward and not back, Holder promised in his confirmation hearings to “follow the evidence, the facts, the law and let that take us where it should.”
The nation’s first African-American Attorney General, Holder, 58, brings a unique perspective to the job. In the 1970s, New Jersey police pulled over his Plymouth Duster to search for weapons. The car contained nothing more than Holder, then a dean’s-list undergraduate at Columbia University, and a group of black friends. It impressed on Holder the dangers of using the law as a blunt instrument, a lesson he applied years later in overseeing a racial-profiling settlement with the New Jersey state police. After Columbia Law School, he passed up high-paying jobs for a chance to prosecute corrupt officials as a Justice Department lawyer, piling up the convictions of a Philadelphia judge, a Florida state treasurer and crooked FBI agents. In 1988, Ronald Reagan appointed him to the D.C. superior court, the front line for those fighting drug and gang violence in the nation’s capital. Holder quickly earned the nickname Judge Hold ‘Em among defense lawyers for refusing to set bail for clients who were accused of violent crimes. He was known for listening carefully to arguments and showing leniency to defendants willing to assume blame. But hard-core criminals had the book thrown at them. “I told my clients, If you’re guilty, you need to plead early and often,” recalls attorney Glennon Threatt Jr. “He was completely intolerant of individuals who were found guilty of violent crimes.”