Eric Holder, former attorney general under President Barack Obama, was in Buffalo on Feb. 16 as part of UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
Holder gave a short speech followed by a question-and-answer period in which he discussed some of the major issues he faced as attorney general and commented on current issues facing America.
Holder was asked why he took the attorney general position. Holder said that he thought working under President Obama would give him the best opportunity to do the things he constantly thought about and wanted to achieve, but hadn’t had the chance to do.
He specifically noted his desire to focus on civil rights and other issues Americans are thinking about less then they had previously.
"I also wanted to work with this president, who I respect a great deal," he concluded.
Holder also spoke about the independence the attorney general has from the White House.
"I was able to work independently from him (Obama) where that was appropriate," he said.
Holder expressed concerns about whether current Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be able to put aside a political relationship with President Trump and work with some independence from him.
Holder said that he believes Trump is a legitimate president, having won the election according to the rules.
He does, however, question the relationship between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence, saying that an impartial investigation must be held to reach clear conclusions about this relationship.
Later, when asked about Trump’s immigration ban, Holder was not afraid to give his honest opinion.
"As a matter of law, I think it’s unconstitutional; as a matter of policy, I think it’s unwise," Holder stated.
He went on to say that the ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries tends to convert the war in the Middle East to a religious war. He said he believes the administration will come up with an order that is "probably a little more restrained."
Holder also spoke about some specific issues he faced while attorney general and noted some cases that were particularly challenging.
He discussed the Defense of Marriage Act, an act that makes gay marriage illegal, and his choice to not support it. He described the challenge of going against the long-standing tradition of only allowing heterosexual marriage; however, said he made the determination that given the treatment of gays and lesbians it was the right decision not to support that statute.
This was not the only tough decision Holder talked about. A common point of discussion was prison sentence time. Holder noted that in many cases involving drug-related crimes he saw sentences that were too long.
One case Holder cited involved a man who had stolen drugs, among other things, to support his addiction. Holder believed that a five- to seven-year sentence was enough given the nature of the crime; however, he was forced to advocate for a 15-year sentence. Holder was allowed to step down from the case given his feelings toward the sentence, and was not forced to resign from the Justice Department. He noted that some people haven’t been so lucky, as people are sometimes forced to resign from the Justice Department due to problems with their conscience.
This instance is a key example as to why the United States has the highest imprisonment rate in the world, Holder later noted.
"The problem with mass incarceration is that too many people go to jail for too long for no good law enforcement reason," Holder stated.
He went on to explain that mass incarceration is a problem that affects all communities and all taxpayers. There is an extreme price for taxpayers to support the large number of incarcerated Americans.
Holder did mention, however, that the United States reduced its number of imprisoned people for the first time in 40 years while he was attorney general.
He indicated that this progress, and all progress, is not linear – there will always be setbacks and obstacles.
Holder made it clear that Americans must do their part to stand up for what they believe in to keep moving forward as a nation, just like he stood up for sentence time and condemned mass incarceration, among other things, based on his beliefs.
Holder noted that the American people must assess the path on which the new administration wants to take the country and make decisions on how they feel and how they wish to proceed based on their beliefs.
Holder said that he believes the power of the American people is too often underestimated, but Americans must use the power they have to stand up for what they believe.
Holder asked his audience members to consider one thing: "What have you done today that will make our country a better place?" he asked the audience to keep this in mind, because he feels that America will only succeed if Americans work to help their country succeed.
Sarah Crawford is a freshman at Nardin Academy.