WASHINGTON – Attorney General Eric Holder bid farewell to the Justice Department on Friday after six years, outlining what he said were his major accomplishments and telling staffers that they helped produce a "golden age" in the department's history.
An emotional Holder, who has served as the nation's top law enforcement official since the start of the Obama administration, addressed hundreds of lawyers and staff members one day after his successor, Loretta Lynch, was confirmed by the Senate following a months-long delay.
"I am proud of you. I'm going to miss you. I am going to miss this building. I am going to miss this institution. More than anything, I am going to miss you all," Holder told the standing-room-only crowd, many of whom embraced him after he concluded his speech.
The event also included a tribute video prepared for the occasion that featured members of Congress, former President Bill Clinton and Holder's wife, Sharon Malone. In it, Holder described an "emotional attachment" to the department and recounted efforts to protect civil rights, prosecute terror suspects in federal court and change the criminal justice system. Other clips showed President Barack Obama showering Holder with praise on the day Holder announced his departure.
Holder, a former judge and U.S. attorney who took the job in 2009, will exit the department as the third-longest serving attorney general in U.S. history. He has not publicly announced what he'll be doing next.
After Lynch, 55, is sworn in at the Justice Department on Monday, she is likely to continue some of the same agenda as Holder as the Obama administration draws to a close. But she is expected to bring to Washington her own management style and has spoken optimistically about having cooperative relationships with Congress following years of bitter feuding with Republicans who saw Holder as overly political and once held him in contempt.
Holder's tenure was in many ways defined by his efforts on civil rights protections. His department challenged state laws that it saw as restricting access to the voting booth and refused to defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of gay marriage. Holder also pushed for changes in the criminal justice system, directing prosecutors to sharply limit their use of harsh mandatory minimum sentences and championing alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug defendants.
Though Holder sees civil rights as a defining element of his legacy, his early years largely centered on national security concerns as the country confronted several terror plots, including a failed effort to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.
Media advocates criticized the Justice Department's aggressive stance in news media leak investigations involving national security cases, and human rights groups expressed frustration when the department failed to bring charges over harsh interrogation tactics of terror suspects.
One area where he has professed vindication is in his plan to transfer terror suspects from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to the United States for prosecution in the federal court system. The plan was abandoned amid congressional opposition, but since then, the Justice Department has pointed to successful terror convictions in American courts even as the military tribunal system has slogged along without major results.
On Friday, he called that debate "dead" and settled and said it was now clear that civilian courts could adequately handle national security investigations.
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