Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. hasn’t left the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building yet, but civil rights activists are worried about whether a strong advocate in Holder’s mold will succeed him.
Holder recently submitted his resignation after nearly six years on the job, making him the fourth-longest serving U.S. attorney general in history.
The news of Holder’s resignation was so significant that civil rights leaders Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, National Urban League CEO Marc H. Morial, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and others, upon reading about Holder’s impending departure on an iPad that was being circulated, interrupted a press conference with the parents of slain Ferguson, Mo. youth Michael Brown and the mother of New York chokehold victim Eric Gardner, to praise Holder.
Sharpton said, “The civil rights community has lost, in effect, the most effective civil rights attorney general in the history of this country.”
In a statement issued later, former NAACP Board Chair Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said: “There has been no greater ally in the fight for justice, civil rights, equal rights, and voting rights than Attorney General Holder.”
Several high-profile decisions will greet Holder’s successor, including whether to file federal civil rights suits in the cases of:
Off-duty security guard George Zimmerman in connection with his killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, in Sanford, Fla. In a state trial two years ago, Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter;
Staten Island, N.Y. Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Gardner, 43, to death on July 17, as the victim said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Garner, who was unarmed, was under suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. No state charges were filed against the officer. The choking and the failure of paramedics to administer CPR was captured on cellphone video and.
Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, 18, to death on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. In a brief confrontation, Wilson had asked Brown, who was unarmed, to stop walking in the street. Brown had his hands in the air at the time he was shot at least six times by Wilson, according to witnesses.
Although it has not been announced, some news reports say that the Justice Department has decided to not pursue civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
Though there is always much excitement surrounding announcements that the Justice Department is considering filing civil rights suits, it is not a simple matter of taking a suspected wrongdoer to trial.
In order to be successful under federal hate crime laws, prosecutors must show that Officer Daniel Pantaleo, in the case of Eric Gardner, and Officer Darren Wilson, in the case of Michael Brown, intentionally killed the victims because they were African American. That is a high standard that is tough to meet, regardless of who is attorney general.
In addition to watching how Holder’s successor address high-profile police misconduct cases, eyes will also be on other key areas such as voting rights.
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Holder made it clear that states would not have a green light to reinstate obstacles that make it more difficult for people of color to vote. He sued Texas and North Carolina to underscore that point.
The November mid-term elections will be extremely important because it will be the first time in nearly 50 years that 15 states with a history of racial discrimination, most of them in the South, will be conducting elections without the Voting Rights Act requirement that they pre-clear any major voting changes with the Justice Department or a federal judge.
In addition, the next attorney general will be evaluated on whether he or she is aggressive in seeking criminal justice reform.
Earlier this year, Holder said, “Our criminal justice system works only when all Americans are treated equally under the law. That’s why, in 2010, Congress passed the landmark Fair Sentencing Act, marking the culmination of persistent efforts – with the leadership of President Obama – to reduce unjust disparities in sentencing for similar offenses involving different types of drugs.”
He also said, “Today, I’m urging Congress to pass common-sense reforms like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee – which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.
“This bill would also provide a new mechanism for some individuals – who were sentenced under outdated laws and guidelines – to petition judges for sentencing reductions that are consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act.”
Holder did more than resuscitate a civil rights division that had been highly politicized and packed with lawyers with little or no civil rights experience. He began the long process of restoring faith in the criminal justice system. His successor should be equally committed. If not, instead of reflecting justice, our prisons and jails will be filled with, in the words of comedian Richard Pryor: Just-us.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.