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US attorney general Eric Holder to step down

Attorney General Eric Holder, a native New Yorker and the first African-American to be the nation's top cop, announced today that he is resigning.

NPR first reported the news of Holder’s departure late Thursday morning.

NPR reported Thursday that Holder and Obama had talked about his resignation "several times" and had "finalized things in a long meeting over Labor Day weekend at the White House." A former U.S. government official says Holder has been increasingly "adamant" about his desire to leave soon. Holder and President Obama discussed his departure several times and finalized things in a long meeting over Labor Day weekend at the White House.
Eric Holder
A former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, Holder was pulled away from private practice to reshape a Justice Department that had been tarnished by a scandal involving fired U.S. attorneys and that had authorized harsh interrogation methods for terrorism suspects. He immediately signaled a new direction for the incoming administration by declaring that waterboarding was torture, contrary to the George W. Bush administration's insistence that it wasn't.

In the first year of his tenure, Holder was widely criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for his plan to try professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged co-conspirators in New York. The plan was doomed by political opposition to granting civilian criminal trials to terrorist suspects, but Holder continued to maintain that civilian courts were the most appropriate venue.

Eric Holder had been at the forefront of the administration’s efforts to tackle racial discrimination, famously accusing the US of being a "nation of cowards" when it came to discussing problems of racism in society.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot," Holder said in a speech given during Black History Month in 2009, "in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

In office, he pushed hard to reform federal sentencing laws and guidelines, trying to tackle wildly disproportionate incarceration rates for young black men and proposing sweeping reductions in sentences for non-violent drug offences.

And in recent months, Holder has been noticeably more vocal than the White House on issues of race, particularly during the disturbances in Ferguson, when he was sharply critical of the response by local police.

Holder had been a lightning rod for opposition to administration policies among Republicans, who led a vote of censure against him in the House of Representatives in 2012 over ‘Fast and Furious’, a failed anti gun-running operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

He had also been criticised by some on the right for action he took against Wall Street, including most recently a $17bn settlement with Bank of America over mortgage fraud leading up to the financial crisis. Conversely, he also came in for criticism from the left for the lack of criminal cases against key banking figures after the crisis.

Senate judiciary committee chair Patrick Leahy said Thursday he hated to see Holder leave and called for confirmation hearings as soon as possible. “It’s going to be hard to find somebody," he told MSNBC.

"I hope no-one will try to block and up and down vote on the chief law enforcement officer in the country," he added. "It would be the height of irresponsibility."

White House official said, "Holder’s accomplishments have established a historic legacy of civil rights enforcement and restoring fairness to the criminal justice system."

"Holder revitalized the Department’s praised civil rights division, protected the rights of the LGBT community, successfully prosecuted terrorists and fought tirelessly for voting rights, to name a few. He will remain at the Department of Justice until his post is filled."

In an emotional ceremony at the White House on Thursday, President Obama said that saying goodbye to Holder was "bittersweet."

He described the attorney general as having a "deep, abiding commitment to equal justice under the law," and to taking steps that further guarantee everyone's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In his own speech, Holder fought back tears. He said beyond having a strong working relationship with Obama, "I am proud to call you a friend."

Holder said Obama's administration has "done much to make real the promise of our Democracy."

Stepping down now, he said, means the end of his public service. But it doesn't mean he'll stop working.

White House officials said Obama had not made a final decision on a replacement for Holder, who was one of the most liberal voices in his Cabinet. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said naming a new attorney general would be a high priority for the president.

Some possible candidates that have been mentioned among administration officials include Solicitor General Don Verrilli; Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole; former White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler; Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney in Washington state, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general.