Washington lawyer Eric Holder has emerged as the top contender for the attorney general post in Barack Obama's administration, and key Senate staff members are fielding questions about how a potential Holder confirmation hearing could play out, ABC News has learned.
If nominated by Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Holder, 57, would be the first African-American attorney general. President-elect Obama has made it clear that Holder is his choice to run the Justice Department, transition team officials say, and staff members have been reviewing Holder's background before he receives an official offer.
He served as the first black deputy attorney general, working under then-Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration.
While at the Justice Department, Holder was viewed as a centrist on most law enforcement issues, though he has sharply criticized the secrecy and the expansive views of executive power advanced by the Bush Justice Department.
Holder faced criticism for not speaking up before Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich, who fled the United States after his indictment for tax evasion and tax fraud. Clinton critics claimed that campaign donations from Rich's ex-wife Denise could have influenced the decision.
Additionally, Holder was serving as deputy attorney general during the Elian Gonzalez debacle. Federal agents raided the Miami home of the 6-year-old boy's family as part of an operation to take him into custody and return him to his father in Cuba.
But sources told ABC News that signs favor Holder being confirmed.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, praised Holder in a statement released today after reports surfaced that Obama was seriously considering him.
"I have known Eric Holder for many years," Leahy said in the statement. "He has served as a prosecutor, judge and high ranking law enforcement official. He would make an outstanding nominee, and should have the support of Senators from both sides of the aisle if President-elect Obama were to choose him for this critical position."
Currently a partner at law firm Covington & Burling in Washington, Holder has also served as a federal judge, appointed by President Reagan, and he later became the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, nominated by President Clinton. He left that post to take the deputy spot at the Justice Department.
Earlier this year, Holder headed Obama's vice presidential search committee with Caroline Kennedy.
Although Holder has emerged as a front-runner for the attorney general spot, with Newsweek reporting that he has accepted the post pending a formal vetting process, the Obama transition team denied that report, saying that as of now, no job has been offered or accepted.
Legal sources also indicated to ABC News that others, including Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., are in the running for the spot as the nation's top lawyer.
The man or woman who takes the spot as the nation's top lawyer will be saddled with many challenges, ranging from counterterrorism policies to a tide of financial investigations.
After the Alberto Gonzales era shook the department and demoralized staff across the country, righting the Justice Department will be no easy task.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine noted in a report last week that restoring leadership and confidence in the department is a top priority, after the scandals that swirled around Alberto Gonzales.
"The department's removal of the U.S. attorneys and the controversy it created severely damaged the credibility of the department and raised doubts about the integrity of department prosecutive decisions," Fine noted in his report.
During Gonzales' tenure, the department ousted at least nine federal prosecutors, a move lawmakers from both parties said was unfair or, at worst, smacked of political motivation.
Fine also wrote, "The department must coordinate effectively with the department's new leadership to accomplish an orderly and efficient transition. In addition to continuing to restore confidence in the department over the long run, the incoming attorney general must address in a timely way the serious challenges facing the department."
In a joint opinion-editorial published last month, Leahy and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively, noted the recent problems that have plagued the department. "The flagship of our system of justice also faces a difficult road to rebuild trust after a crisis of leadership and conscience."
One pressing issue -- and a source of constant speculation -- is the future of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, which houses detainees classified by the United States as "enemy combatants."
Both Obama and his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said during the campaign that they supported closing the facility. Some legal experts have called for moving the detainees into U.S. criminal courts. But the idea of admitting evidence in connection with detainees who are still security threats and who have allegedly been tortured remains a delicate and complex legal issue.
During a briefing Nov. 11, Obama transition chief John Podesta said, "Sen. Obama has said that he intends to close the facility at Guantanamo. That's a complicated matter. It's under review."
Other major counterterrorism issues that may be considered sooner rather than later include a review of the FBI's investigative guidelines that were revised by current Attorney General Michael Mukasey early last month to establish one set of rules for the FBI in national security and criminal investigations.
In December 2009, the Justice Department will also face the expiration of two provisions of the USA Patriot Act; one section deals with roving wiretap authority for terrorism and espionage suspects who use multiple phone lines, the other with the so-called "library provision," which allows the FBI to obtain business records without judicial approval.
What's more, significant changes could come to the department's Civil Rights Division and the Environmental Natural Resource Division, which have largely enforced the use of consent decrees and sought settlements instead of prosecuting cases.
It is unclear if the 93 U.S. attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the president will have staggered resignations or if many will continue to serve as acting U.S. attorneys. Some, such as Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago and David Nahmias in Atlanta, are career Justice Department officials who could stay on in the next administration.
Besides chiefs for the various Justice Department components such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as sectors such as the Criminal and Antitrust Divisions, the department's recently established National Security Division will go through its first transition.
Although the assistant attorney general for national security is a political appointee, the key deputies for counterterrorism, intelligence and counterespionage are all career officials.
In anticipation of the transition and incoming new team of top lawyers, the department's components and divisions have created briefing books that, according to Justice Department sources, include information on key ongoing investigations and major policy initiatives.