Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said today that Eric Holder Jr. displayed “independent judgment” when, as deputy attorney general, he helped facilitate controversial grants of clemency for Puerto Rican nationalists.
“He exercised independent judgment there,” Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a conference call with reporters. He added that the debate over the clemency is only a “rehash.”
Leahy’s comments run counter to criticism from former Justice Department lawyers who say that Holder’s office helped to disguise their opposition to the grants of clemency by asking for a neutral “option memo” on the issue in 1998. Holder’s role in the clemency decisions, which President Bill Clinton issued in 1999, has become a focus of criticism ahead of Holder’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general. The hearing begins Thursday.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that two pardon attorneys with the Justice Department—first Margaret Colgate Love and then her successor, Roger Adams—opposed granting clemency to members of the group FALN but that Holder’s chief of staff, Kevin Ohlson, asked for a memo that outlined options but did not give a recommendation. “It appears that [Holder] effectively gave the White House permission to make the grants,” Love told the newspaper.
FALN was involved in a series of bombings and other acts of violence intended to promote Puerto Rican independence, though the 16 people granted clemency were not involved in crimes that led to deaths or injury. They were required to renounce violence prior to leaving prison, where they served about 20 years.
Asked about the criticism, Leahy said that the lawyers and others are welcome to contact the Judiciary Committee about Holder’s confirmation. “If they disagree, they can write in against him,” he said.
“Should he be asked about it? Of course. People can agree or disagree with the recommendation,” said Leahy. He added, “We’ve had five days of hearing on this back in 1999. People want to rehash it? Fine. The ultimate question is this: What kind of attorney general will he be in the future?”
George Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general in the first Bush administration, and Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for President-elect Barack Obama, have also defended Holder’s actions in the FALN case. Holder declined to discuss specifics when testifying in Congress a decade ago, citing executive privilege, but Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has said he plans to ask again.
Meanwhile, Holder continues to receive support from prominent Republican lawyer-politicians. Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) joined Leahy in the conference call to vouch for Holder’s independence and judgment as deputy attorney general.
“There’s a unique perspective that comes from being a part of that Justice Department family,” said Hutchinson, a partner at Venable and a former U.S. attorney. “He will be able to create an atmosphere of independence and integrity throughout the department. Leadership starts at the top, and that will carry down through the career attorneys in the department.”
Danforth, a partner at Bryan Cave, praised the perspective he said Holder has gained in eight years of private practice with Covington & Burling, at times opposing lawyers from the Justice Department. “That is a plus, and it’s a very, very important plus. This is something that professional prosecutors don’t always recognize—and I didn’t recognize it when I was in government—and that is that the Justice Department has enormous power, and it also has the potential to overreach that power,” Danforth said.