Holder, who served as attorney general for the first six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, offered some of it Saturday at Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium for the third annual John A. Payton PO ’73 Distinguished Lectureship, named for a pioneering civil rights lawyer.
Through stories and a healthy portion of jokes, Holder gave audience members insight into the operations of the Justice Department under Obama, the criticism that current Attorney General William Barr is facing and the threat of gerrymandering during the redistricting process in 2021.
He also offered, for what appears to be the first time, his endorsement of a proposal to term-limit Supreme Court justices. He also advocated for allowing each president to appoint two justices each per term.
“I don’t think someone should have that much power in an unelected position for that long,” he said. “I think that three senatorial terms, 18 years, would be enough for a justice.”
Holder has also previously supported expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
After introductions by Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr and Gay McDougall, a civil rights activist and Payton’s widow, Holder addressed the audience from the podium.
He first gave tribute to Payton, his friend and the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“He was really more than a great lawyer — he was a warrior for justice,” Holder said.
Holder, who was considered a potential candidate to enter the 2020 Democratic presidential primary before ruling out a run last March, then sat down with Pomona politics professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky, an expert on constitutional law and the Supreme Court, for a discussion and Q&A.
Holder described the current state of the Justice Department as a “disaster” after all four members of the team prosecuting lobbyist Roger Stone resigned after the department said it planned to reduce Stone’s recommended sentence.
Although Holder isn’t one of them, he blasted Barr for what he saw as partisan behavior and caving to pressure from President Donald Trump — although Barr denied in an ABC News interview last week that Trump’s preferences played a role in his decision to reduce the sentencing recommendation.
“Your job is to protect the Constitution and the interests of the American people. We don’t serve the president of the United States; the president is not your client,” Holder said.
Holder emphasized the danger in eroding the Justice Department’s independence.
“[Barr] has put at risk that which we hold dear when I think about the Justice Department as an institution,” he said.
Holder also joked about his early days as a judge in the D.C. Superior Court, where he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
“Republicans’ heads explode when they hear that,” he said, to widespread laughter. “Holder? That guy’s got horns and a tail — he was appointed by Saint Ronny?”
Holder concluded his talk by talking about his current work combatting gerrymandering as the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
He said the combination of partisan and often racial gerrymandering that the Supreme Court ruled nonjusticiable last year under Rucho v. Common Cause, as well as the unlimited amount of money allowed in political donations under Citizens United v. FEC, shows that “the court has fully turned its back on that which I think it has a primary responsibility to protect, and that’s our electoral system.”
Holder said the NDRC will be working to ensure a fair census in 2020 and a fair redistricting process in 2021 to avoid gerrymandering.
Many students were impressed with the relatability and openness Holder showed.
“Holder was a thoughtful speaker with a sense of humor that helped hold my attention and presumably the attention of other students in the audience,” Rowan Macy PO ’22 said via message. “I appreciated his conviction and found his perspective on the justice system and the presidency interesting and well-informed.”
Holder ended the talk expressing optimism that younger generations will be able to effect change in the public sphere.
“I hope that we will all leave tonight committed to being engaged in the fight to save our democracy,” he said.