When he heard someone charge Gen. Grant with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling Gen. Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders. President Obama should take a lesson from his most distinguished predecessor and find out what’s gotten into Attorney General Eric Holder and share it with his cabinet and the rest of his administration.
The Attorney General seems to have developed a backbone of late. First, he announced significant changes to federal sentencing practices that should reduce the number of people serving long sentences in federal prison for low-level drug law violations. But he hardly stopped there.
Last month the Justice Department signaled it would assume a greater role in assuring the quality of indigent defense in state criminal systems. In a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, Justice filed a brief describing what it called “a state of crisis” in public defender systems nationwide. Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant a lawyer, the right to effective counsel remains an empty promise in many parts of the country. Holder’s intervention in the ACLU lawsuit signals that his Justice Department intends to back up that promise.
Holder also chose to ignore the White House memo, the wringing of hands, and political rhetoric reporting that the U.S. Supreme Court “gutted” the Voting Rights Act of 1964 when it held that the preclearance provisions were no longer constitutional given 50 years of change in statistics. Holder is using the true “guts” of the Voting Rights Act to take the state of Texas to court, claiming recent voter ID laws violate the Act. He has also signaled his intention to intervene in similar lawsuits brought in other states such as North Carolina. The preclearance provision only affected a few southern states. Holder has signaled that wherever discrimination in voting laws occurs, whether it be in Alabama, Ohio, or New York, his Justice Department will be aggressive and no longer myopic in focusing on a few southern states.
In a dramatic fashion Holder next signaled he has been listening to the millions of people who believe our country’s prohibition policy concerning marijuana is mistaken. Only a few weeks ago Holder announced a new approach to the marijuana legalization laws in Washington and Colorado.
The Justice Department essentially said to authorities in Colorado and Washington: “proceed with caution, but it’s okay to proceed.” The eight criteria Holder set out for evaluating implementation of the new laws are prudent and necessary: reduction of criminal involvement and violence in the marijuana business, the prevention of distribution to minors, drugged driving, and production on public lands, and the diversion of marijuana to jurisdictions where it is not yet legal.
The implications of Holder’s decision are enormous. Washington and Colorado can now move forward with implementing their legalization initiatives with significantly less fear of capricious federal action undermining their efforts. The 18 other states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes now have clearer and more expansive guidelines. The growing number of states where a majority of voters favor legalizing marijuana can move forward with appropriate legislation and ballot initiatives.
Federal prosecutors may still be able to diverge from the Justice Department’s guidelines and prosecute some of those operating legally under state law. No one knows what a new administration will do in 2017, but Holder’s reasoned approach to the dilemma raised by conflicting federal and state laws was gutsy and shows a cabinet official who is confident and ready to implement the “change” President Obama’s supporters wish he would deliver. Who knows? Maybe Holder will reign in domestic spying and the drone killings of American citizens before he is through.
I don’t agree with everything Holder has done recently. I think his suing to block the American Airlines – US Air merger was ill-advised given American’s bankruptcy and the FAA’s regulation of the entire industry. Who do opponents and Justice think is going to buy American – Donald Trump? But the decision to sue or not was a tough one, and he didn’t flinch in making it. I am sure there are others with which I don’t agree, but I admire his new found willingness to confront the issues facing the Justice Department. What is certain is that whatever Holder’s drinking, he should send a barrel to Obama.