The US Senate on Monday confirmed US President Barack Obama’s choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, making him the first black American to hold that office.
Lawmakers voted 75-21 to confirm Holder, 57, as the US government’s top lawyer after a confirmation process that moved in fits and starts because of Republican concerns over his position on volatile issues, including the US “war on terrorism” tactics and gun rights.
Some Republicans had expressed concerns about Holder’s criticism of US interrogation practices widely seen as torture and about his role in some controversial end-of-term pardons by then-president Bill Clinton, whom he served as deputy attorney general.
One question had been whether the Obama administration may seek to investigate alleged torture and prosecute intelligence or military officials who used it.
On another front, some lawmakers opposed Holder because they viewed him as hostile to gun ownership rights.
The career federal prosecutor, judge and Washington lawyer takes over a department that has been mired in scandal and which civil rights groups said became a political tool under the previous administration of president George W. Bush.
Holder replaces attorney general Michael Mukasey, who in September appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, and others involved in the firings of nine US attorneys broke the law.
When he was nominated by Obama on Dec. 1, Holder said he wanted to revitalize the Department of Justice, which has unique responsibility “in keeping our people safe and ensuring fairness and in protecting our environment.”
But, he added: “National security concerns are not defined only by the challenges created by terrorists abroad but also by criminals in our midst, whether they be criminals located on the street or in a board room.”
Holder worked in the Public Integrity branch of the Justice Department in his early years as a lawyer, a newly created section that dealt with corruption by public officials in the years following the Watergate scandals.
After distinguishing himself with nearly a decade of service, Holder was appointed in 1988 by then-president Ronald Reagan to the post of superior court judge in the nation’s capital.
He earned a reputation for being tough on crime and in 1993, he became the first black American appointed as US attorney in Washington.
Holder was soon promoted again, this time to serve as deputy to attorney general Janet Reno in the Clinton administration. Again, he was the first black American to serve in that slot.
In related news, a White House aide said Republican Senator Judd Gregg was to be announced yesterday as Obama’s pick for commerce secretary.
“I can confirm the Gregg pick,” said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not yet been made.
Gregg would be the third Republican to serve in Obama’s Cabinet and could give a boost to the Obama administration, which is already running up against stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers on key economic legislation.