Holder has a long to-do list at Justice

In his brief tenure as attorney general, Eric Holder has spent much of the time separating the Justice Department from the work of the prior administration.

He is a point person in the closing of the government's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has characterized waterboarding, the terrorist interrogation technique, as torture. And he has vowed to restore credibility to the Justice Department, badly damaged by the politically charged scandal involving the abrupt dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.

Last week, Holder intervened in what was one of the most contentious prosecutions during the Bush administration when he dismissed the corruption charges against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, a Republican, for the prosecution's failure to disclose crucial information to defense lawyers. The trial ended in conviction and cost the 85-year-old Senate icon the seat he held for 40 years.

Holder's actions sent a message aimed at fixing more than one bad case, legal analysts say.

"The attorney general has sent an unequivocal message that prosecutions of any kind, whether against Republicans, Democrats, independents or others, must be done right," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said after Holder's announcement. "Public confidence in our justice system and in the Department of Justice can only be preserved when prosecutors adhere to the most stringent legal and ethical standards."

Just months ago, Leahy and the committee's ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, were among the Justice Department's harshest critics who, during the waning months of the Bush term, characterized the agency as one of the most damaged institutions in government.

J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, which analyzes political ethics issues and the influence of money in politics, says it could take "years" to fully restore confidence in the department but that Holder's work so far marks a sharp change in course.

"For several years, as an alumnus of the department, I felt betrayed," says Bruce Udolf, former chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in South Florida. "I was angered at the way politics had been injected into the department. A lot of my colleagues have felt the same way. But this is refreshing."

Less than a month after Senate confirmation hearings where he declared that waterboarding is torture, Holder shook up Washington in February when in a speech about race relations he characterized the U.S. as a "nation of cowards."

Holder's remarks were part of his first major speech as the nation's first black U.S. attorney general and shortly after he had vowed to revitalize the Justice Department's Civil Right Division. During the Bush term, an internal Justice Department report concluded that some department officials hired attorneys in the Civil Rights Division based on their political affiliation.

The allegations of politicization, including the 2006 dismissals of the nine federal prosecutors, led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Brad Berenson, a former associate White House counsel to President Bush, says there is "a tendency to blame any sort of problem on the previous administration."

Berenson, who represents Gonzales' former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, says the Bush Justice Department was a target of "phony scandals whipped up" by political enemies.

"If you look at the day-to-day management of the caseloads in the civil and criminal divisions, I think they were very well managed," he says.

In the Stevens case, which involved a Republican administration against a Republican defendant, Berenson believes Holder's decision had little to do with symbolism. He says it was more likely a simple conclusion that the case could not be saved.

Court documents filed last week revealed that prosecutors did not give Stevens' lawyers notes from a 2008 interview in which a key government witness gave information that seriously conflicted with his testimony.

"I see the decision (to dismiss) driven by unique circumstances in the Stevens case," Berenson says.

While the lawyers involved in the disputed Stevens case were career prosecutors, whose work and tenure are not traditionally subject to political influence, Hebert says the Bush administration must assume some blame for not properly supervising their work.

"If you are going to bring an indictment against a sitting senator — Republican or Democrat — you want to make sure everything is in order," Hebert says.

"I just don't think that was the priority of the last administration. Holder is obviously concerned about the department's reputation and integrity," he says. "This is a major statement by this administration."