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November 19, 2008

Three late afternoon thoughts on the Holder pick: race, tough and tech

I have so many old and new thoughts about the importance of the next Attorney General and about President-Elect Obama's apparent selection of Eric Holder for that spot.  At the end of a long day, I want to focus on three particular thoughts/words:

1.  Race:  The import and impact of racial issues in all aspects of the work of the federal Justice Department (both criminal and civil) should not be overlooked, even though war on terror and political issues have dominated modern DOJ and AG discussions.  An appointment of the first African-American Attorney General is therefore noteworthy and important for many reasons.  And, while many aspire for post-racial dialogues about crime and justice, the interplay between race and justice will be that much more salient when Eric Holder becomes the nation's top cop.

2.  Tough:  Jeff Rosen wisely notes here that, because Holder "has impeccable credentials as a tough-on-crime prosecutor," he might be uniquely positioned to achieve a "Nixon in China on Crime."  While many might be concerned about his past connection to all the tough-on-crime posturing during the Clinton Administration, that very background might give him a unique ability and unique credibility if and when he tries to turn the corner on "tough-on-crime" in an effort to now be "smart-on-crime."

3.  Tech:  I was pleased to learn during this NPR segment that Holder is, according to a close friend, "a technology junkie."  As some of my regular technocorrections blogging helps to highlight, I expect some of the hardest and most unpredictable crime and justice issues on the horizon will involve technology issues.  Whatever his policy positions or instincts, the fact that Holder has an affinity and comfort with technology should be a great assert for his new job.

Some recent Holder as AG posts:

November 19, 2008 at 06:18 PM | Permalink


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I'm opposed. Holder will be a Nixon-in-China on pardons, given the Marc Rich fiasco, and we're going to see almost no meaningful pardons coming from an Obama administration. Heck, even anti-Miranda Judge Cassell supported a pardon for the guy who got over 50 years for taping a gun to his leg while selling marijuana, but I'd be shocked to see him get pardoned by Obama.

Posted by: Poirot | Nov 19, 2008 8:01:58 PM

Doug, I just don't understand the source of your optimism. I agree that the new administration should be given a chance but this pick does not bode well. One way to look at Holder is to see Nixon going to China. Another way to see him is as an Uncle Tom, who will bury the real issues under a flurry of concern of a black man for black men. There are very real racial disparities that need to be addressed. But whose identity is being affirmed here? The black professional class? That's cool but it has nothing to do with the black person in the inner city of Detroit. Many black people in prison (and whites for that matter) have explicitly rejected the life course that Holder has chosen to follow. His appointment has no symbolic value to them whatsoever. I think the appointment of the first African American as attorney general is noteworthy, but I think in the long run Holder's appointment will be noteworthy for all the wrong reasons.

Posted by: daniel | Nov 19, 2008 11:48:17 PM

Doug, you are absolutely right that there is no better time than now to discuss the elephant in the living room of the impact of race on criminal justice, particularly in the capital context.

I was selecting the jury in a capital trial a year ago and I asked the jurors if there was any reason they would prefer not to sit on the case. A juror raised his hand and said, "the def doesn't need me on his jury." I asked why. Candidly, the juror said, "he's black, I'm white and I'm prejudiced." I believe that many other jurors hold the same belief but are unwilling to express it.


Posted by: | Nov 20, 2008 5:31:03 AM

Daniel: I am an instinctual optimist, and I also think your extreme pemissism is unwarranted. One could also describe the President-Elect as an "Uncle Tom," and yet his election has clearly had profound symbolic value to all Americans.

Moreover, the impact is not symbolism as much as reactions and results. I am very confident that if/when Obama and Biden and Holder all speak of the need to do something about racial disparities that it will prompt more reactions and results (in Congress and elsewhere) than when Bush and Cheney and Mukasey make similar statement.

Posted by: Doug B. | Nov 20, 2008 8:47:40 AM

I don't think I am "extremely pessimistic" because I have qualified my all various remarks with the statements that (1) Obama is not Clinton and (2) This administration deserve a chance.

But I do think the appointment of Eric Holder shifts the burden of proof. Before this appointment I was hopeful; now I'm skeptical. I would like someone to point to one thing on Mr. Holder's resume that shows a real, practical concern for the lives of African Americans (as a group) in the criminal justice system. And I don't mean a report or policy wish-list; that's just hot air.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 20, 2008 11:33:39 AM

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