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Editorial: Rights enforcement leads Eric Holder's legacy

Attorney General Eric Holder at a news conference

Attorney General Eric Holder at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington on Sept. 4, 2014. Credit: AP

The attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement officer, is usually the president's closest confidant and the one cabinet member who takes most of the slings and arrows for the administration. Eric Holder, who announced his resignation Thursday, fulfilled both roles.

Hit hard from both the political left and the right, Holder's six-year tenure as head of the U.S. Justice Department united diverse opponents in criticism. Those on the left decried his aggressive defense of the National Security Agency data collections, his prosecution of government leakers and the journalists who published their information, and his failure to put the heads of financial institutions complicit in the mortgage debacle behind bars. Meanwhile, those on the right denounced his failure to cooperate fully with Congress in its probe of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' bungled Operation Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation, his refusal to defend the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act before the U.S. Supreme Court, and his extraction of big financial penalties from banks in connection with the mortgage debacle.

Yet Holder should best be remembered not just as the nation's first African-American in the post, but an attorney general who restored vibrancy to Justice Department Civil Rights Division efforts to tackle racial and sexual discrimination, including voting rights violations, excessive mandatory drug sentences and breaches of gay rights. He also made it a priority for local U.S. attorneys to root out public corruption.

The president has not chosen a successor, so Holder will stay on until one is confirmed. The attorney general is one of the most important jobs in the nation and the confirmation of a new one should not be caught up in the reckless partisanship that is paralyzing Congress.