A Perfect New Mission for Eric Holder

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The attorney general has the chance to build a lasting legacy as a defender of voting rights. How? By leaving his current post to take up a new one.

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Larry Downing/Reuters

Attorney General Eric Holder was ambivalent Thursday on the topic of returning to the Justice Department for President Barack Obama's second term. He said he is asking himself these days if he has "any gas left in the tank" to continue at his post and I don't blame him the soul-search. Battered by Republicans over the controversial Fast and Furious program, precluded by narrow-minded officials of both parties from prosecuting terror detainees in federal civilian court, embarrassed by the acquittal of Roger Clemens in an unpopular perjury trial, it's easy to see why Holder would be thinking of moving on to the next phase of his distinguished career in law and politics.

Challenge? Meet opportunity. Eric Holder should resign his post at Justice to lead the new Commission on Election Reform that President Obama must empanel to investigate voter suppression, voter fraud, and all other threats to voting rights. The Commission should be charged with recommending to Congress what legal changes are necessary to ensure that American citizens do not have to be put through the indignities they suffered this year when they tried to register and vote. If the president is serious about the topic-- "we have to fix that," he said early Wednesday morning in his victory speech, referring to outrageously long voting lines this year-- this would surely be a good way to show it.

And Holder would be a perfect candidate to help run it. For if the attorney general has generated reasonable scorn for the Justice Department's courtroom work and policy choices over the past four years in other areas of its jurisdiction, the Department's record in defense of voting rights has been truly inspiring. Countless Americans this election cycle were able to cast a vote, and to have that vote count, because of the efforts of federal lawyers who marched into court to beat back the worst of the Republican voter suppression laws. If Holder has "any gas left in the tank" for public work at all you would think it would be here, on the most precious of civil rights, in the best tradition of the Department he loves.

Holder already has left his mark, literally, on this vital area of the law. Under acting associate attorney general Tony West, and pursuant to the ever-proper and necessary Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Division of Justice fought hard for the right of poor Texas citizens -- registered voters -- not to have to travel hundreds of miles by bus for a state identification card Republicans lawmakers told them they needed to vote. The case there is styled Texas v. Holder. In Florida, the feds moved quickly to protect the rights of Florida citizens, also registered voters, to vote early (as they did in 2008) before the Republican governor and Republican lawmakers curtailed the practice. That case is styled Florida v. Holder.

In South Carolina v. Holder, meanwhile, federal lawyers fought for the rights of voters like Craig Debose, the Vietnam veteran who traveled 11 hours by train to Washington to testify in court about the impact South Carolina's partisan identification law would have on his voting rights. Debose doesn't have a driver's license because he doesn't own a car. Does he not still deserve the right to vote? I suspect that Holder considers these case captions to be badges of honor, eternal reminders that his Department fought the good fight this election season over core American rights and values. Serving on an important commission to further enshrine those rights in law would be a natural pivot point to Holder's career.

Earlier this week, I suggested that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former star prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald also should play leading roles in this national effort. Holder would nicely complement them. It's true that his relationship with some members of Congress soured over the stymied civilian trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. But how did that work out for Holder's foes? Had Mohammed been tried in the Southern District of New York, as Holder urged, the 9/11 plotter already would have been convicted and sentenced. Instead, he sits in the terror prison at Guantanamo Bay while his military judge figures out how to proceed with his case. Holder was right about civilian terror trials. Congress was wrong.

The president should not wait until his second term to address the problem of voter suppression. He needs to start now, while people all over the country still are angry and shocked at how shabbily some of their fellow citizens were treated by local officials. He needs to start now, while Florida and Ohio still struggle to count their votes. He needs to start now, before state lawmakers renew their suppression efforts for the 2014 voting cycle. And if the Republican Party wants to fight against such election reform -- fight in the name of states' rights against broad voting rights for American citizens -- that's a fight the president and his fellow Democrats should welcome.

In the end, however, no matter who serves on such a commission or how it happens, we need serious answers to the questions raised by this year's election cycle. It has been far too long since such a review was undertaken in good faith. Why were Democratic voters far more likely to face voter suppression tactics and long lines at the polls than their Republican counterparts? Where is all the "voter fraud" that Republican lawmakers cite to justify the new identification laws that have a disparate impact on poor, minority voters? What federal carrot, and what federal stick, will finally force outlier states like Florida and Ohio to fix their election systems so that people can vote, and votes can be counted, accurately and efficiently?

Despite all the protestations of the present day, it's unlikely that history will have much to say about Holder's tenure at the Justice Department. (Quick, aside from the really bad ones, or the really good ones, how many attorneys general do you remember?) But if Holder can help deliver to his fellow citizens meaningful election reform, if he can help bring some dignity to the voting process for millions of Americans, if he can help preserve, protect, and defend the values of the Voting Rights Act against cynical challenge, he will have a substantial legacy in the area of civil rights. There should be plenty of gas left in his tank for that.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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