In remarks to the annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, Holder vowed that the Justice Department would continue its fight to quash states’ restrictive voter-ID laws and redistricting boundaries that disenfranchise voters.
Near the end of his speech, for the first time in several years he included the District’s lack of voting representation in Congress in that discussion.
“When I talk about all who want to be heard in the halls of the federal government, I am talking about the more than 600,000 taxpayers who, like me — like me — live in the District of Columbia and still have no voting representation in Congress,” Holder said. “We pay our taxes. We die in the Army. We have a great representative, and we do not have voting rights. It is long past time for every citizen to be afforded his or her full responsibilities and full rights.”
Holder’s comments were arguably his most forceful on the topic during six years as the nation’s top law enforcement official. But in raising the issue a day after he said he would soon step down, he also followed in a tradition of presidents and members of Congress who have spoken most passionately about the issue late in their time in Washington, when the comments would have little immediate effect.
D.C. residents and city lawmakers packed a Senate hearing this month for their first chance in two decades to make the case to Congress that the nation’s capital should be the 51st state.
The District now has a larger population than Wyoming or Vermont, and its residents pay more in federal taxes than those in many others. But under the U.S. Constitution, residents in the District have no vote on the federal budget, war resolutions or countless other measures.
Congressional lawmakers still maintain the ability to alter local laws and overturn voter referendums, such as those governing laws on abortions and medical marijuana, by attaching restrictions on how the District can spend its own locally-raised tax revenue.
At the hearing this month, only two senators showed up. One of those, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), called the exercise a waste of time, saying few seemed serious about D.C. statehood, including President Obama, who had sent no representative.
During his second inauguration, Obama’s presidential limousine sported the District’s standard license plate, which bears the protest slogan “Taxation Without Representation.” Asked last year if he supported statehood, Obama said, “I’m in D.C., so I’m for it.” But he never responded to a letter from the D.C. Council in advance of the Senate hearing asking him to reaffirm his support.
Holder, who lived in the District for decades before taking the helm at Justice, co-signed a 2007 letter with other prominent lawyers supporting D.C. voting rights legislation.
As attorney general in 2009, Holder pushed aside an opinion of Justice Department lawyers that a D.C. voting rights bill then pending in Congress was unconstitutional.
In a rare move, Holder ordered the Obama administration’s solicitor general to provide a second opinion on the bill’s legality. It found D.C. statehood could be defended in court, but the measure died in Congress.
Holder had said little on the topic since — until Friday.
Earlier in his speech, Holder reminisced about his achievements over the past six years at the Justice Department, and he vowed, despite a Supreme Court setback, to press ahead on the gains made since passage of the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s.
“There is no question as we gather here today in Washington, D.C., in 2014 there is a great deal of work that remains to be done,” Holder said.
He left without taking questions, but his comments on D.C. voting rights were lauded afterward.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest ranking African American in the House, said it was clear that Holder was sensitive to issues affecting people of color and fellow D.C. residents. “All of us are the sum total of our experiences,” Clyburn said.
Hamil Harris contributed to this report.