Eric Holder was the first African American Attorney General and served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2015. He was recently hired to defend California against anticipated conflicts with the federal government. Our interview focused on his role in defending California’s policies, the protection of sanctuary cities, as well as his continued efforts to ensure voting rights. Due to space constraints, this transcript contains minor edits. Interviewed by Kaili Meier, Sidra Pierson, Natalie Bettendorf and Levi Myers.
- Here in Berkeley we are obviously interested in your new role to help defend CA against potential conflicts with the federal government. What motivated you take this position and how effective do you anticipate the state’s efforts to be? How are you going to change your approach from the federal level to state?
Well I think the representation was interesting to me because California I think has done so much in the past few years to really come up with a vision for the state that I think is consistent with how we say we want the United States to be. California, I think, is a welcoming place, it’s a very diverse place, it’s a place that is tolerant, it treats people with respect, and the desire was a part of a legislature, the Assembly and the senate, to maintain that the environment in California, and to ask for legal help, to make sure that they are capable of doing that is what attracted me to the representation. I think that what you see in California today is the United States that we will see tomorrow, so maintaining those values that I just talked about I think is extremely important.
How effective do you anticipate the state’s efforts to be?
I actually think that it will depend on what the administration in Washington seeks to do, but there are good legal precedents for the state, I think, in regards to the issues that matter most to it, and those are immigration, climate, and health care. I think we are going to be on solid legal footing if we find ourselves in opposition to the federal government.
- We live in a sanctuary city and our school is concerned for our undocumented students. In your opinion what can President Trump realistically do to weaken sanctuary cities? What can local authorizes legally do to resist federal overstepping?
That’s a very interesting question, and to me it’s not clear what the answer is to the question. It depends a lot on what it is the federal government tries to do. The law is pretty clear in that there are Supreme Court cases that the federal government cannot force the states or localities to use their police forces, their law enforces to enforce federal law, that’s one. And then two, there are Supreme Court cases that say federal government cannot use the threat of withholding federal money to coerce states into doing something that the states otherwise don’t have to do. And I think the combination of those two lines of cases gives California I think a pretty good opportunity at resisting the federal government if a decision is made to try to involve the state law enforcement authorities in what should be strictly federal efforts.
- Do you think protest is it an effective tool in creating pressure to change policy, and has it been used effectively in resistance efforts thus far under the current administration?
Absolutely. I think the American people are only beginning to understand, again, the power of protest, the power of an energized, focused population. I’m old enough to remember the protests that surrounded the Vietnam War, and the fact that those protests essentially ended that war. When it was clear that the American people did not support the war effort, the war was brought to a close. I think we’re seeing something similar to that now where you saw millions of people around the country the day after the inauguration, the hundreds of thousands of people who went to the airports the week after that, and the continuing involvement of people in protests. I think that has a great impact, certainly on people who are in elected office, you know, these congressmen who are doing their town hall meetings, for instance. That has an impact on how they vote. But I also think they can have an impact on the political calculus that is done here in Washington about how far can we push, what policies are going to be acceptable. If there is the thought that a policy is going to generate a substantial amount of popular opposition, then people rethink putting that policy into place. So I think people should not underestimate the power of demonstrations, of protests. They are very powerful.
- There have been major battles over people’s right to vote as well as Republican efforts to make the voting process more challenging in the U.S. during Obama’s administration. Can you assess the past administration’s work to address these conflicts, as well as the challenges that lie ahead?
While I was attorney general, one of the priorities that I had was protecting the right of American citizens to vote, to cast a ballot. We have seen, especially after the Shelby County Supreme Court decision, efforts by a number of states make it more difficult for American citizens to vote. This is inconsistent with who we say we are as a nation. It’s also inconsistent with the arc of American history where we have made it easier to vote. We’ve been more inclusive when it comes to who can vote. And so we made a number of decisions in that regard, and so I’m very concerned about what this new justice department is going to do. Just yesterday, the Justice Department announced that it was going to take a different position than the Justice Department that I headed when it came to the voting statute in Texas. So I’m very concerned about that, but protecting the right to vote is of critical importance to any justice department.
- Is there anything that can be down to prevent any rollback of what you did during your time (leading the justice department)?
The Justice Department is not going to be as aggressive as we were. There are still lawyers in private practice, at places like the NAACP, Legal Defense Fund, lawyers from private law firms, who can continue the legal fight against those states who are doing things inappropriately when it comes to people having the right to vote. But I think, you know, people have the ability to protest, and to get out into the streets and to go to the offices of their congressmen, their senators, to make sure that they know that they are not in support of these restrictions on the right to vote, and that they really have to focus on the state level. Going to the state legislatures, whether it’s your assemblyman, your senator, to make sure that they understand that people don’t support making it more difficult for people to vote.
- What do you think the National Democratic Redistricting Committee can realistically accomplish by the next presidential election?
Our hope is that by the next Census, which is in 2020, the Democratic Party will be in a much better place than it was in 2010, so that fair districts can be drawn certainly more fair than were drawn after the Census in 2010, and so you have a more representative government. If you look at the House of Representatives now, Democrats won more votes than Republicans, and yet there are fewer Democrats in the House of Representatives than there are Republicans. If you look at the state levels, like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Democrats won over 50% of the popular vote, yet you look at their legislatures and Democrats have maybe a third of the representation. And that’s all because of the way these districts were drawn after 2010. So the redistricting effort is an attempt to make the redistricting that has to be done after the 2020 census to make it more fair and make it a battle of Democratic versus Republican ideas, as opposed to a battle over who can draw district lines better.
- Isn’t much of the malapportionment problem simply a function of Democrats being concentrated in urban areas? Some people think this may account for 50% or more of the mal-distribution of congressional seats. Is this a solvable problem?
Yeah, I think that it’s a solvable problem. Certainly there’s something to be said. [But] that’s not the reason we have bad districting, the fact that Democrats are concentrated. If you look at some of the districts that were created after 2010, there’s a requirement that a district be contiguous, that it’d be geographically contiguous. There’s one district in Virginia that is only contiguous at hide tide, when the water is at a certain level, and otherwise the district has to be in two parts. But if you make the districting more fair, in urban areas and in rural areas, you end up with, I think, a much more fair and representative democracy. The fact that urban voters tend to be more democratic does not by itself explain all the problems that we have with bad efforts at redistricting.
- Is redistricting a sufficient response to the tremendous problems with our voting system? Is it just tweaking a system that is too deeply flawed and needs more of an overhaul, or can we achieve enough progress through efforts of redistricting?
I think redistricting is just one of the things that we need to do if we going to try to make our democracy better, make our system of voting better, so we still need to have fair districts. We need to increase the amount of time that people have to cast a ballot. We need to have a system where people are expected, in some places, to cast a vote. On one Tuesday in November – why is that? Why do we vote on a Tuesday as opposed to a Saturday, where some people have to decide between going to vote and going to work? And so that has a negative impact on lower-income people. So increasing the number of days that people have to vote, increase the number of ways in which people can vote. We have seen in certain states a voting by mail, where you have not seen an increase in voter fraud, but you’ve seen a greater participation by people in casting a ballot. I think there are a variety of things that we need to do, and I think that we should make it a goal as a nation to come up with ways that are fraud-free, but that make it easier for people to vote so that we have more people participating in the process.
- What are specific ways you plan on continuing your voting rights efforts under the Obama administration to empower african american voters affected by gerrymandering and voter ID laws particularly in the south?
Well now, you know, I dont have the power of the Justice Department behind me, so now I’m a private lawyer. I’m on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is very active in voter protection efforts. The law firm that I am a part of, Covington & Burling, is also working to help with regard to voter protection. We have a case that we are handling in Alabama, challenging some of the restrictions there. So I plan to be involved in those ways, both as a board member, and member of the firm, and also to use the influence I have as a former attorney general to speak about these issues. Whether it is in an interview, such as we are doing here, or speeches that I give, [I want] to raise the consciousness of the American people about the need to protect people’s right to vote, and to make sure that when we say that we are a great democratic nation, and that, in fact, we become and stay that.
- Can you assess the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in particular its influence on police violence?
I think the Black Lives Matter movement has been something, again, that has raised issues that have been long-discussed in the African-American community, and have now raised those issues for the larger community as well. I think it might have been better to call it, instead of Black Lives Matter, the Black Lives Matter Too, because I think that is what the movement is about. For too long in our history, black lives didn’t matter. So I think what they are trying to say is that black lives, in fact, do matter in a whole variety of ways. And yeah, there’s certainly a trust gap that exists in certain communities between people in law enforcement and people in minority communities. I think we have to work on ways to make that trust gap smaller so that people understand how tough it is to be a cop, and at the same time, people in law enforcement need understand how people are treated when they interact with people in law enforcement really matter and has an impact on the ability of people in law enforcement to do a good job.
- What is your opinion on the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, questioning the reports on Ferguson and Chicago policing?
I didn’t see all that he said, but I can tell you that those were two great reports done by career civil servants at the Justice Department. They were well-researched, they were fair, they were independently done, they were thorough, and I stand by the findings that the civil rights division made with regards to both of those reports. I thought that was excellent work done by, as I said, these career employees in the justice department. They’re not tied to any one party. People in the civil rights division simply try to go out and find the facts, and that’s what they did in those reports.
- As young people who are concerned about the impact of this administration’s policies, what can we do in the next 4 years to promote a liberal agenda and be involved in this resistance movement?
First I think you have to understand that age is not a barrier to effectiveness. You can be influential no matter what your age. If you look at parts of the civil rights struggle, it was when kids decided to get arrested in substantial numbers that helped raise the consciousness of the nation and proved extremely effective in moving the movement forward. So you should not think that age is a disqualifier. The second thing, you know, as writers, you all as journalists, have the ability to shape public opinion by doing good reporting. By being good reporters and sharing truth with the people who read what it is that you write, but then also when you’re writing opinion pieces, making sure that those pieces are grounded in fact that your opinions are well-thought-out. In that way, you have the ability to move people, to shape public opinion, and ultimately public policy. If you can do that now, that’s the kind of thing that will serve you well. It will be good training for what you do when you are older. Some of you will continue in journalism, some of you will go on to do other things. But no matter what it is that you do, we all have responsibilities as American citizens to be involved, to be engaged in the issues of the day, and to try to make our country better. You can do that as journalists now, in high school, and you’ll be able to do that as citizens in your life.
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