In an interview conducted yesterday with The Daily Beast, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder cited criminal-justice reform as his "signature achievement" as America's top law enforcement official. "After years of over-reliance on incarceration as a criminal-justice strategy, we finally started to turn this aircraft carrier around," Holder said.
Holder certainly deserves some credit in this area. He has spoken out in favor of reducing prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, eliminating racial injustices from the justice system, and other measures designed to counteract the fallout from mass incarceration and the disastrous war on drugs. But if Holder deserves a cheer for that, he deserve a jeer for overseeing the federal prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries that are operating legally under state law—especially since Holder made what sounded like a promise to stem such federal prosecutions. Yet as a 2013 report by the California branch of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws noted, Holder's Justice Department turned out to be even worse on the marijuana front than its Republican predecessors. "153 medical marijuana cases have been brought in the 4 ¼ years of the Obama administration," the report observed, "nearly as many as under the 8 years of the Bush administration (163)." That record has not gotten better with age.
As the head of the Justice Department, Holder also deserves his share of the blame for the Obama administration's lousy record at the Supreme Court, which includes unanimous defeats on issues ranging from executive authority and the separation of powers to the Fourth Amendment, the free exercise of religion, due process of law, and the Takings Clause. As I previously described it, this Justice Department "continues to push dubious legal theories that fail to persuade even the most liberal justices to vote in [its] favor."
Holder's record on civil liberties is equally poor. Most notably, despite President Obama's promise of running "the most transparent administration in history," Holder's Justice Department has secretly subpoenaed and collected the emails and phone records of journalists. Holder's Justice Department even threatened to jail New York Times reporter James Risen, who refused to reveal his sources in a CIA whistleblower case. "The administration's war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I've seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post's investigation of Watergate," wrote Leonard Downie Jr., author of a scathing 2013 report on the Obama administration and the press written for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent."
When all is said and done, Holder's harassment of the press may turn out to be the real "signature achievement" for which he's remembered.