Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has remained publicly silent in recent weeks as some conservatives hammered him on the loyalty of Justice Department lawyers who in private practice worked on Guantanamo Bay detainee matters.
Holder broke that silence today, telling a group of pro bono lawyers at a conference in Washington that attorneys who advocate for unpopular clients and matters "do not deserve to have their own values questioned."
Holder, however, did not specifically bring up the recent criticism from the conservative group Keep America Safe, which earlier this month produced a video that questioned the allegiance of a group of Justice attorneys. The video dubbed the DOJ lawyers the “Al Qaeda Seven.” The video was a response to the department’s refusal to name the lawyers—names that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Holder to provide back in November at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Holder, addressing a conference of the Pro Bono Institute, said today that lawyers volunteer their services to protect the integrity and fairness of the justice system. He was twice interrupted by applause.
“This is why lawyers who accept our professional responsibility to protect the rule of law, the right to counsel, and access to our courts—even when this requires defending unpopular positions or clients—deserve the praise and gratitude of all Americans,” Holder said in prepared remarks. Holder called the attorneys “patriots.” He did not mention Guantanamo Bay litigation.
The remarks mirror what Holder said in November at his last appearance on Capitol Hill for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. He responded to Grassley’s request for information, saying that Justice lawyers involved in detainee litigation know and understand their ethical obligations. Holder called the lawyers "fine public servants who have sacrificed a great deal to work in the department."
Today, Holder trumpeted the department’s launch of its Access to Justice Initiative, led by Harvard Law Professor Larry Tribe, who attended the conference in Washington. The initiative, Holder said, is a permanent effort to provide greater access to justice and to advocate for fairness in the justice system.
The Pro Bono Institute today awarded Holder the group’s Chesterfield Smith Award, named in honor of a late founding partner of Holland & Knight. Holder said Smith was a pioneer in transforming how the private bar views pro bono service.