The Magazine

Politicizing Justice

Attorney General Eric Holder’s agenda begins and ends with delivering favors to Obama’s constituencies

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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President Obama and Eric Holder

On the morning of January 21, just before President Obama’s second inauguration, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and House budget chairman who had run unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for vice president, was roundly booed by the gathered crowd as he left the Capitol to attend the ceremonies on the Mall. Within minutes Daniel J. Freeman, a young career trial lawyer with the Voting Section of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who was at the Capitol for the festivities, took credit in a Facebook post for instigating the anti-Ryan derision. “Just started the crowd booing when Paul Ryan came out,” he wrote.*

What is interesting about Freeman’s boast isn’t just that a career civil servant considered himself entitled to indulge in, and encourage others to indulge in, some public and highly partisan incivility​—​helping to give Obama’s second inauguration quite a different tone from that of his fellow Democrat John F. Kennedy, who had declared in his 1961 Inaugural Address, “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” It’s that Freeman, a 2007 graduate of Yale Law School who started working for the Justice Department in 2010, mirrors in his professional interests two of the political and ideological preoccupations of his ultimate boss, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., appointed by Obama soon after taking office in 2009 and one of the few high officials in the administration who has survived into Obama’s second term. While in law school and during a yearlong fellowship afterwards, Freeman interned, apprenticed, and acted as student representative for several self-described “human rights” organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliate the New York Civil Liberties Union. Freeman’s legal focus during that time, as he described it on Linked-In, was “torture” and “military tribunals”​—​that is, attacking the counterterrorism policies of Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. War on Bush’s war on terror has been a signature obsession of Holder’s as well. In a June 2008 speech to the American Constitution Society, a liberal law group to which Freeman had belonged at Yale, Holder declared that “we owe the American people a reckoning” on such Bush-era interrogation practices as waterboarding and sleep deprivation. At the time Holder, who had served as deputy attorney general during Bill Clinton’s second term, was a partner with the elite Washington law firm Covington & Burling, whose attorneys (although not Holder himself) were providing free legal representation to suspected-terrorist detainees at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

As for the Justice Department’s Voting Section, the Holder years have been marked by an aggressive effort on the part of the section’s lawyers to use the 1965 Voting Rights Act to nullify state voter-identification laws on the ground that requiring people to present a photo ID at the ballot box disenfranchises blacks and other members of ethnic minorities. Holder went so far as to call voter-ID laws “poll taxes” in a 2012 speech to the NAACP, referring to the onetime Southern-state practice, ruled unconstitutional in 1966, of denying blacks the vote by exacting a price that the poorest of them could not afford to pay.

Like master, like man, the old saying goes. In this case, it’s like Holder, like Freeman. But it’s also like Obama, like Holder. Each of Holder’s belligerent stances on the above two issues has served and indeed reflected the interests of key Democratic constituencies that Obama courted during both his campaigns. One of the president’s first executive orders, signed just two days after his inauguration on January 20, 2009, was a pledge to shut down the military prison at Guantánamo, which houses about 240 foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-proclaimed mastermind of the massacre of 9/11. Tellingly, Obama tasked the Justice Department with closing the facility within a year and sending the detainees either to the United States for trial or back to their home countries. Getting rid of Gitmo​—​an event yet to materialize to this day—had been a nonnegotiable demand of the progressives who formed the hard-left substrate of Obama’s base. They had also beaten the drum for Obama to hold war-crimes trials for Bush, former vice president Dick Cheney, and other Bush administration officials connected to torture allegations and wars in Islamic countries.

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