January 16, 2009
Testimony of John Payton
President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Hearing on the Nomination of Eric Holder, Jr. to be Attorney General of the United States
Russell Senate Office Building Room 325
January 15, 2009
On behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. ("LDF"), I am pleased to testify in support of the nomination of Eric Holder, Jr. for Attorney General of the United States. LDF was founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall and is the nation's oldest civil and human rights law firm. We view it as a national imperative that the Department of Justice live up to its name by delivering justice and equality for all people in the United States.
For issues of justice and equality, there is no more important position in the Cabinet than that of Attorney General. When the Department of Justice has functioned as it should, it has brought us together and strengthened our democracy by reflecting our nation's collective commitment to fair enforcement of the law and to ensuring equal opportunity in every facet of society. Led by Robert Kennedy and Nicholas Katzenbach, and many of those who followed, the Department's courageous enforcement of federal civil rights laws opened countless doors for African Americans and millions of others who needed protection against discrimination.
The decisive election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States is momentous and has generated a spirit of optimism and commitment that is extraordinary. In turn, the nomination of Eric Holder as our first African-American Attorney General is also historic. But the President-elect and his Attorney General will take office in perilous times. This will be the first Administration to transition during wartime in forty years. Issues relating to national security, counter-terrorism and detention will remain at the forefront for the foreseeable future. At the same time, this will be the first Administration in over seventy years to transition in a time of economic catastrophe. Issues of racial justice and equality are often compromised in such stressful economic times. We at LDF, along with other human rights organizations, will do our part to see that our democracy is strengthened and our society made more just. But, more than ever, the Attorney General must inspire trust and confidence through an unwavering commitment to justice and to keeping the American people safe and secure in their rights and freedoms.
The harsh reality is that today the Justice Department is in shambles. Mr. Holder will inherit a Department with its very credibility in question. The entire Department has been decimated by scandal and controversy. From the firings of United States Attorneys to the dismantling of the Honors Program, the Department has suffered greatly. But the area in which the Department has been most damaged is the Civil Rights Division, which has been plagued by problems that have shaken its very foundation. Press reports and hearings before this Committee have revealed the politicization of litigation, the weakening of enforcement, improper or possible illegal personnel practices, and a substantial decline in cases filed to protect racial and ethnic minorities. Politics and ideology have triumphed over even-handed law enforcement at almost every turn. Career civil rights lawyers in the department have been demoralized and many were literally driven out of the Department.
Two days ago, the Department's Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility released their joint Report on "An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring and Other Improper Personnel Actions in the Civil Rights Division." This Report was completed on July 2, 2008, but was only released this week. An earlier report provided some insight into the troublesome practices of recent years, including the political corruption of the Department of Justice Honors Program which excluded from consideration applicants who had any contact with a list of "liberal" organizations. LDF was on that list. But,that said, this second report is nevertheless shocking. It concludes that hiring in the Special Litigation Section, the Employment Litigation Section, the Voting Section, the Criminal Section, and the Appellate Section was illegally infected with political and ideological considerations and it makes a criminal referral of this matter to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia.
The task at hand is nothing less than to reclaim the soul of the Department of Justice, as former Attorney General Edward Levi phrased it immediately after Watergate. And the core of that soul is the Department's Civil Rights Division. Yes, integrity must be restored to all of the Department's operations. And yes, it must regain its independence from political influence. But the mission of restoring the Civil Rights Division requires very special leadership and commitment from the Attorney General.
At this critical juncture, I can think of no better person than Eric Holder to restore integrity and honor to the Department of Justice, and the ethical standing and reputation for excellence of the Civil Rights Division. He has an exceptional resume: Columbia College and Columbia Law School; Honors Program at the Department of Justice; a lawyer in the Public Integrity Section of the Department; a Judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; United States Attorney for the District of Columbia; Deputy Attorney General of the United States; and partner at Covington & Burling. He began his legal career as a summer intern at LDF. Ironically, in the recent past this would have disqualified him from consideration for entry level positions at the Department. I have known Mr. Holder for two decades. His experience and the strength of his commitment to fairness assure me - as they should assure you - that the odious practices identified in this week's Report would never be tolerated on his watch.
Before I was appointed LDF's President and Director-Counsel I was a partner with WilmerHale for twenty years, served as the Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1994, and served as president of the D.C. Bar from 2001 to 2002. Through these and other experiences, I have had years of professional contact with Mr. Holder, consider him a friend as well, and know personally his commitment to justice and equality.
In these times, it is imperative that the Attorney General be prepared to lead the Department of Justice on Day One with integrity and the requisite independence. Our country cannot afford to provide on-the-job training for the next Attorney General. Eric Holder is a proven leader who is prepared to meet the challenges that the Department will face. Most importantly, Mr. Holder can live up to Attorney General Levi's aspiration and restore the soul of the Department.
Mr. Holder is also the right person to restore the credibility of the Department of Justice in the eyes of Congress, the courts, and the American people. He served for two decades in the Department, as trial attorney, United States Attorney and finally Deputy Attorney General. He understands the mission of the Department and its influence, and he appreciates the great significance of appearing in court as the representative of the people of the United States. Mr. Holder will work tirelessly to erase the stain of political influence on the Department's recent record and ensure once again that the administration of justice is impartial and transparent. This is particularly important for the Civil Rights Division, which has been dealt a severe blow in its public standing. I am confident that strong civil rights enforcement on behalf of all persons
protected by our civil rights laws will be a top priority for Attorney General Holder. As a Department veteran, Mr. Holder is well-positioned to lift the morale of thousands of lawyers and other employees of the Department which, by all accounts, has declined substantially in recent years. Finally, the breadth and depth of the support for his nomination for Attorney General signifies that Mr. Holder inspires public confidence across the political and ideological spectrum.
With Eric Holder's nomination, we can begin to restore the crown jewel of our nation's legal system. I urge the Senate to confirm Eric Holder as the next Attorney General of the United States.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I would be happy to answer any questions.