Editorial -- Eric H. Holder Jr.'s Imperfect Record

Thursday, November 20, 2008

IF TAPPED as attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr. would bring years of experience and top-notch credentials as a prosecutor, judge, lawyer in private practice and former top official in the Justice Department. The predominant features of his record are independence, integrity and effectiveness. But there is one stain on his record that Senate confirmation hearings should examine.

As a young attorney in Justice's fledgling Public Integrity Section, Mr. Holder helped bring cases against Philadelphia judges. Mr. Holder would later become a judge himself, when President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the D.C. Superior Court. There, Mr. Holder gained a reputation as a thoughtful and even-handed jurist. He favored neither the government nor criminal defendants; nor did he reflexively favor the little guy against business, or vice versa.

As the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in the early 1990s, he presided ably over the high-profile corruption prosecution of former Democratic powerhouse Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois. Yet Mr. Holder, the first African American to hold the top prosecutor's slot in the District, also made time to meet with residents all across the city. During those sessions, he often simultaneously faced the desperation of citizens living with fears of crime and the frustration of those who questioned the fairness of a system that locked away so many young black men for relatively minor drug crimes. He handled the queries with the commitment of a public servant who also sees himself as a member of the community.

As deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, Mr. Holder supported the investigation of administration officials, which did not always sit well with the White House. He won the respect of many Justice Department career officials, relieved to be dealing with a political appointee more concerned with the law than with politics.

But there is a blot on Mr. Holder's otherwise stellar reputation. Mr. Holder was No. 2 at the Justice Department when President Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a major Clinton contributor. Although Mr. Holder oversaw the lawyers responsible for evaluating pardon requests, he did not insist that his department formally evaluate the legal merits of the claim after Mr. Rich applied directly to the White House for his pardon. He told the White House on President Clinton's last night in office that he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" on the pardon. Mr. Holder has since said he would have opposed the pardon had he had more information.

Mr. Holder testified before Congress in 2001 about the Rich affair. But Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was right to say on MSNBC yesterday that, if nominated, Mr. Holder must be questioned again about his failure to block that unconscionable pardon. Ultimately, the call was President Clinton's, but why did Mr. Holder not object to the pardon of a fugitive millionaire politically connected to the president? After almost eight years of a highly politicized and dysfunctional Justice Department, the Senate should assure itself that the next attorney general will be beyond reproach.

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