Eric H. Holder life and biography

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Eric H. Holder biography

Date of birth : 1951-01-21
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Queens, New York, USA
Nationality : American
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-06-25
Credited as : Attorney general, Obama administration,

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Eric H. Holder, Jr. (also known as: Eric Holder, Jr., Eric Himpton Holder, Jr.) born January 21, 1951 in Queens, New York, United States is an American U.S. attorney general.

On February 3, 2009, Eric H. Holder Jr. was sworn in as the first African-American U.S. attorney general. He also holds the distinction of being the first black to be appointed as the U.S. attorney of the District of Columbia and as the U.S. deputy attorney general. During the three decades he has spent practicing law, Holder has witnessed a number of interesting cases. As the attorney general, however, he faces far greater challenges such as the closing of the Guant´namo Bay detention facility in Cuba, the interrogation of potential terrorists, and the controversies surrounding the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) itself.

Helped Others While in School

The son of parents who had emigrated from Barbados, Holder was born and raised in a working-class section of Queens, New York. By virtue of his scholarship, he was accepted into the academically elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and after graduation he enrolled in Columbia University. There he majored in American history, earning top grades, and he spent his spare time absorbing black culture at notable Harlem landmarks such as the Apollo Theater and the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Feeling a responsibility toward fellow black Americans who were less fortunate than himself, Holder began spending his Saturday mornings at a Harlem youth center and taking selected young people on trips around the city. He joined the Concerned Black Men, a national organization dedicated to helping minority youngsters.

Holder received his bachelor's degree in 1973 and was immediately accepted into Columbia's law school. When he graduated from that institution in 1976, he decided to join the DOJ. At the time he figured he would work there two or three years and then take a position in a private firm. Holder joined a relatively new division at the DOJ, the Public Integrity Unit. "It was formed ... with Watergate still ringing in everyone's ears," he told the Chicago Tribune. (Watergate is an incident that occurred in the summer of 1972 that eventually resulted in President Richard M. Nixon's resignation.)

The Public Integrity attorneys were charged with prosecuting high-level corruption cases, often involving respectable public figures. Among those Holder helped prosecute were the former South Carolina congressman John W. Jenrette in the notorious "Abscam" case in the late 1970s and a Philadelphia judge who accepted monetary gifts to "fix" cases. The list of people Holder prosecuted while with Public Integrity included Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, politicians, organized crime figures, and even a fellow DOJ lawyer. The job Holder thought he would stay in for two or three years consumed a dozen years of his life.

Became a Superior Court Justice

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan appointed Holder to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The rotating judgeship involved deciding every imaginable kind of case, from murders and armed robberies to nonpayment of child support and school truancy. The job proved particularly difficult for a man committed to helping African Americans in the city.

Holder told the Washington Post that he became painfully aware that most of the defendants in his courtroom were "young black guys, 18 to 25." He said, "Conceptually, yeah, I knew that's what it was going to be because it's a city that's 70 per cent black, and black males are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. I guess the reality of it struck me after a while. I mean, it's not an easy thing to deal with, if you are a person who's concerned about the black community, to see what ought to be the future standing before you charged with some sort of criminal offense."

In a Washington Post profile of Holder that followed him through several weeks on the Superior Court bench, the beleaguered justice pondered the African-American plight. "I'm black, and I suppose that helps, but I led quite a different life from a lot of the people who come before me as defendants," he said. "Yet there's always a certain something that transcends economic barriers. There's almost a sense that being black and middle class means you've got your feet in both worlds.... Racism is alive and well in this country, but that doesn't excuse or justify the acts of the people who come before you. Every person who comes before you as an adult and talks about the deprived life he's had, there are 10, 15, 20 people from that same neighborhood who are just trying to make it, and those are the people who are the victims."

Appointed DC U.S. Attorney

Holder's sentiments as a judge--both sympathetic and pragmatic--helped endear him to the District of Columbia's political leaders. Many of these politicians felt that the district should have a black U.S. attorney, preferably a local citizen who had demonstrated an allegiance to the area. Holder was just that citizen, and he had even worked at the DOJ. After the presidential swearing-in of Bill Clinton in 1993, the congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton commissioned a panel of Washington, DC, lawyers and civic activists to make recommendations for the district's U.S. attorney slot. The panel chose Holder, and Norton passed his name along to the president. Holder was one of three candidates interviewed for the position, and the only qualm expressed about him was his lack of leadership experience.

Late in 1993 Clinton announced that he had chosen Holder to be the first black U.S. attorney of the District of Columbia. In an interview with the Washington Post, Holder responded to the leadership issue that had concerned some of his supporters. "In some ways, I came in as prepared as I could have been because of my 12 years in Public Integrity," he said. "I think potentially I'm a better U.S. attorney now than I was then, from being on the bench for five years." When asked to assess the impact of a highly visible position on his career, he added, "I guess the reality is [that] there is something personally at stake for me. You have to do the investigating and just call it."

Publicity was waiting for Holder almost the very day he began his new job. Even though he was appointed by a Democratic president, he was expected to preside over a complicated DOJ investigation of fraud involving the post office in the U.S. House of Representatives. An influential congressman, Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski, was the subject of the investigation and has since been indicted on charges that he misused official House accounts.

As chairman of the congressional Ways and Means Committee, Rostenkowski was in a position to help the Clinton administration implement its agenda for health care reform. Nonetheless, Holder persisted with the investigation and even widened its scope. He told the Washington Post that matters of criminal prosecution must be handled without regard to partisan politics. "The idea that a Democratic U.S. attorney is going to do something different than a Republican U.S. attorney is pretty close to ridiculous," he observed.

Selected U.S. Deputy Attorney General

In 1997 President Clinton nominated Holder as the U.S. deputy attorney general. The New York Times noted that Holder generated criticism from some members of Congress when he stated, "I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I will enforce the law as this Congress gives it to us." Regardless, this criticism was not strong enough to prevent him from being confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Determined to make the DOJ run smoother, he developed the "Holder Memorandum," which established guidelines of how to criminally prosecute corporations. He also founded Lawyers for One America, at the behest of President Clinton. The main goal of the organization was to encourage lawyers to do more pro bono work. For two weeks he served as the acting attorney general until the post was filled by John Ashcroft.

As the deputy attorney general, Holder is best known for the role he played in Clinton's last-minute pardon of Marc Rich. An international commodities trader, Rich was indicted in 1983 on several counts of tax evasion. Before he could be prosecuted, however, Rich fled to Switzerland. When Clinton called on Holder for his opinion on whether Rich should be pardoned, the Washington Post stated that Holder replied, "Neutral, leaning towards favorable." Thus advised, Clinton made what many political experts consider to be one of his most controversial pardons.

Appointed U.S. Attorney General

Holder was enticed to the private sector when the Covington & Burling law firm offered to make him a partner. Josh Meyer in the Chicago Tribune explained that Holder "handl[ed], among other matters, complex civil and criminal cases, domestic and international advisory matters and internal corporate investigations." Among his list clients were Chiquita Brands International, Merck, and the National Football League.

Holder first met then-Senator Barack Obama at a dinner party in the fall of 2004. According to Marisa McQuilken in the Legal Times, "The two men chatted about politics, the Justice Department and the law, and 'just kind of hit it off,' Holder says." Shortly after that meeting, Obama asked Holder to be his national campaign cochairman. It was in that capacity that Holder approached superdelegates and advised Obama on speeches and policy issues. When Obama was the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, he had Holder serve on a three-member team to help him vet possible vice presidential candidates. Following the 2008 presidential election, president-elect Obama offered Holder the position of U.S. attorney general, and he accepted it.

During his thirty years of practicing law, Holder had successfully been confirmed by the Senate for three separate jobs. Most political and legal experts believed Holder's nomination was practically a done deal when he accepted Obama's offer. When he went before the Senate, however, he ended up facing a seven-hour hearing, during which he was asked dozens of questions, many on national security, gun control, and his role in the Rich pardon. According to Carrie Johnson in the Washington Post, in spite of the opposition from some Republican senators, the larger congregation of supporters from both sides of the partisan divide strongly agreed with a statement made by Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee: "This confirmation is going to do a great deal to restore the morale and the purpose throughout the department." Holder was confirmed by a vote of 75 to 21.

As the U.S. attorney general, Holder faced a number of issues. The administration of George W. Bush had established the detention facility at Guant´namo Bay to hold potential terrorists, supported certain tactics that could be used during the interrogation of terrorists, and championed the use of wiretaps without warrants. During the Bush administration the DOJ itself was wracked with a number of politically motivated hirings and firings. After being sworn in as president, Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility and ban harsh interrogations. Holder planned to assist the president in determining where the Guant´namo detainees will be sent, in establishing legal guidelines on interrogation, and in helping the administration to decide its stance on warrantless surveillance. He also planned to focus of the DOJ's civil rights division to address allegations of abuse in the hiring and firing of department personnel.

Following his Senate confirmation, Holder spoke to the DOJ. According to Reuters, he said, in part, "Our task will not be easy. Our days will be long and our challenges will be great. But I know that because of your professionalism, your integrity, and your hard work, we will succeed in our vital mission. And I pledge to you today that throughout the days and months ahead, I will work with you, I will listen to you, and I will learn from you as we go forward.... I say to you today--let's roll up our sleeves, and let's get down to work."


Born Eric Himpton Holder Jr. on January 21, 1951, in Queens, NY; parents emigrated from Barbados; married Sharon Malone (an obstetrician/gynecologist); children: Maya, Brooke, and Eric. Education: Columbia University, BA, American history, 1973; Columbia School of Law, JD, 1976. Addresses: Office--U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20530-0001.


U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Public Integrity Section, Washington, DC, trial attorney, 1977-88; Superior Court of the District of Columbia, associate justice, 1988-93; DOJ, U.S. attorney of the District of Columbia, 1993-97, deputy attorney general, 1997-2001; Covington & Burling, partner, 2001-09; DOJ, attorney general, 2009--.

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