Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was getting ready to give a speech at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin when he glanced up at a giant video screen where old photographs of Johnson were being displayed. He was taken aback by what he saw.
In an image that captured the historic day the president signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a young woman was standing nearby whose face Holder recognized immediately: his late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, one of two young students who had walked past Gov. George Wallace in 1963 to integrate the University of Alabama.
The first African American attorney general hadn’t known that Malone was with the president when he signed the Voting Rights Act, which would become the cornerstone of modern civil rights law. That emotional day for Holder two years ago, aides say, was a pivotal moment in deepening his already strong commitment to the body of law that protects minority rights.
That commitment has driven a series of recent decisions by the attorney general, including his denunciation of “stand your ground” laws in Florida and about 30 other states, as well as the Justice Department’s move to intervene last week in a redistricting case in which officials say Texas is threatening to marginalize minority voters. Holder has made it clear that the defense of civil rights will be the centerpiece of the remainder of his term — and, he hopes, his legacy.
“The attorney general’s plate is full of every kind of legal issue that is presented involving the United States,” said Columbia Law School professor Ted Shaw, a longtime friend of Holder’s. “But enforcing the civil rights laws is near and dear to his heart. And it has been for a long time.”
Holder’s determination to defend civil rights has exposed him to allegations that he is effectively trying to circumvent the law.
“Once again, the Obama administration is demonstrating utter contempt for our country’s system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said last week.
Sen. John Cornyn (R) said Texans “will not stand for the continued bullying of our state by the Obama administration.”
But the Justice Department has signaled that it will take fresh legal action in voting rights cases in a number of states — part of its effort to blunt the effect of the Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a critical part of the Voting Rights Act.
On Monday afternoon, Holder met for 45 minutes at the White House with President Obama, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and a coalition of civil rights leaders to emphasize the administration’s commitment to ensuring full access to the polls.
Sitting at the president’s side, Holder told the group that Justice officials will try to work with Congress on a long-term fix to the section of the Voting Rights Act that was invalidated, said an official who was briefed about the meeting.
Holder also told the civil rights leaders that Justice plans to bring lawsuits against individual states to subject them to pre-clearance through the courts.
“We are going to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he told the group.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended the meeting along with other leaders of African American, Hispanic and Asian groups, said: “We’ve been assured by the president and the attorney general that they will continue to aggressively fight to protect the right of all Americans to vote. We are very encouraged by that.”
The Monday meeting at the White House was the latest in a month of announcements and speeches that has placed Holder front and center in the national debate over civil rights.
Shortly after the verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida, Holder gave two speeches to African American organizations, vowing to continue investigating the shooting as a possible federal civil rights violation. In a speech in Orlando, Holder denounced state stand-your-ground laws that allow people to defend themselves with deadly force if they think their lives are endangered.
“These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” Holder said, adding that the measures “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” and may encourage “violent situations to escalate.”
In the same speech, Holder foreshadowed his next target: voting rights. He said he was “deeply disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s “flawed decision” in its June ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
Although the Justice Department’s decision to intervene in Texas has gained much attention, administration officials say the Obama administration is likely to initiate a lawsuit against Texas over its voter-ID law, as well as a suit against North Carolina if it passes a strict voter-ID measure.
In Texas, Justice is asking a judge to require that the state get pre-clearance on all voting law changes for 10 years.
Perez, who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division before becoming labor secretary, said Holder’s recent actions reflect his longtime commitment to protecting civil rights.
“He set a tone from the outset that the Civil Rights Division was going to fairly, independently and aggressively enforce all the civil rights laws on the books,” Perez said.
Holder, upon becoming attorney general, met with the Civil Rights Division before any other division at the department. Since 2009, the division has opened 16 investigations of troubled police departments, issued 11 findings of misconduct of law enforcement agencies and reached 11 agreements for comprehensive reform.
Washington pundits speculated last year that Holder would step down after harsh criticism about the botched “Fast and Furious” gun operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The House voted to cite him in contempt of Congress for withholding documents and some lawmakers called for his resignation.
Shaw, Holder’s good friend from Columbia Law School, said he does not know when Holder will leave the post. But he’s sure of one thing: it will be when the attorney general thinks he has accomplished his goals and is ready to go.
“Eric is someone who is very strong,” Shaw said. “He is low-key in nature, but people shouldn’t mistake that for someone who can be pushed around. A lot of those folks on the Hill wanted his scalp last year. They had their frenzy and they foamed at the mouth. And he is still there. ”
David Nakamura contributed to this report.