Attorney General Eric Holder to step down after six-year tenure

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota. Photo from KXMB / Twitter

Attorney General Eric Holder will be stepping down after a six-year run at the Department of Justice that saw a dramatic shift in the federal-Indian relationship.

The changes emerged slowly -- government attorneys were still fighting trust fund lawsuits that began in prior administrations when President Barack Obama took office and nominated Holder to the post. But with the announcement of the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement in December 2009, which came a month after the first-ever White House Tribal Nations Conference, tribes and individual Indians saw their trustee take a different stand in the court and in public.

YouTube: President Obama Delivers a Statement on Attorney General Eric Holder

"He’s dramatically advanced the cause of justice for Native Americans, working closely with their communities," Obama said of Holder during an announcement at the White House on Thursday.

Since then, the administration has resolved breach of trust lawsuits with 80 tribes, bringing the total value to $2.61 billion. Combined with Cobell and water rights deals, Indian Country has seen $8 billion in settlements since 2009, Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in an opinion piece in The Albuquerque Journal today.

Beyond fiduciary trust matters, Holder's DOJ eagerly embraced the Tribal Law and Order Act, which became law in July 2010. During the Bush administration, federal prosecutors opposed a provision that required them to report the number of Indian Country cases they declined to pursue but now that information is made public every year.

The law -- which gives tribes greater flexibility to sentence criminals by strengthening their court systems -- laid the groundwork for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in March 2013. Again, Holder's DOJ pushed Congress to recognize tribal authority over non-Indians who commit domestic violence offenses.

DOJ is now urging Congress to include Alaska Natives in the jurisdiction provisions. They were left out of VAWA over the objections of tribal leaders.

In court cases, Holder's DOJ has taken a stronger position in favor of Indian rights even when the federal government hasn't been a party in litigation. Government attorneys have defended the Indian Child Welfare Act in South Dakota and before the U.S. Supreme Court.

DOJ also has supported tribal members in voting rights cases in Montana, New Mexico and Alaska. In June, Holder initiated consultation on a bill to place polling stations in tribal communities across the nation.

Regarding civil rights, DOJ brought the first case under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In November 2010, three men were indicted and convicted on federal hate crimes charges for attacking a Navajo Nation man in New Mexico.

In Washington state, Holder initiated a review of the police department in Seattle after an officer shot and killed John T. Williams, a Native woodcarver, in 2010.

Not every Indian Country issue has been a bright spot for Holder, however. By supporting and enforcing the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act (PACT Act), the Obama administration has effectively killed the tribal tobacco industry by forcing tribes and Indian business owners to comply with state taxation regimes and by restricting how they ship their products.

DOJ is also going after tribal lending institutions, a highly controversial industry that emerged in Indian Country in the last few years. And while government attorneys are supporting the Cherokee Freedmen in an enrollment dispute within the Cherokee Nation, Holder hasn't looked into similar cases among tribes across the country, Original Pechanga noted in a post on Thursday.

Get the Story:
Attorney General Eric Holder to step down (The Washington Post 9/26)
Attorney general confirmation process is fractious even before it’s begun (The Washington Post 9/26)
Eric Holder Resigns, Setting Up Fight Over Successor (The New York Times 9/26)
A Champion of Civil Rights, if Not of Civil Liberties, Just Like His Hero (The New York Times 9/26)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Native Sun News: DOJ report highlights activity in Indian Country (09/10)
Barry Brandon: DOJ places a chokehold on tribal loan enterprises (09/09)
Declination rates for Indian Country crime steady for third year (08/27)
DOJ awards grants to address violence in Bakken energy region (08/27)
Native Sun News: DOJ backs tribes in ICWA case in South Dakota (08/21)
Native Sun News: DOJ backs lower sentences for some offenders (06/25)
DOJ supports bill to include Alaska tribes in VAWA jurisdiction (06/12)
DOJ to consult tribes about polling locations in Indian Country (06/10)
Attorney General Holder addresses Indian Country initiatives (06/06)
Trending in News
More Headlines