Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to students and faculty at UB Thursday.. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will take a wait and see approach before saying anything critical about the newly confirmed head of the Justice Department, former Republican Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.
In heated confirmation hearings earlier this month, Democrats accused Sessions of taking extreme positions on issues such as abortion and criminal sentencing guidelines and expressed concern that Sessions would roll back new civil rights protections advanced under President Obama and Holder.
But Holder, who served under Obama from 2009 to 2015, said Thursday that he did not oppose Sessions' nomination.
"It seems you ought to give people a chance, unless they're wholly unqualified," Holder told a group of about 120 University at Buffalo students, faculty, staff and alumni. "He may end up surprising us and he maybe will say, 'This is who I always was,' and I may end up saying, 'Well I've seen growth then.'"
Holder, the first African-American to be appointed Attorney General, predicted Sessions would more likely end up crossing some "red lines" on issues such as voting rights.
Holder is now an attorney in private practice with Covington & Burling, and he was hired by the state of California in January as a legal adviser on potential conflicts between the state and the Trump administration over immigration, health care and other issues.
Holder said he would be vocal on those key concerns, but he also planned to be "very sparing in my criticisms because I know how tough the job is. I know how tough the decisions are."
Holder also gave brief remarks, obliquely addressing the Trump administration, to 2,000 people Thursday night in UB's Alumni Arena as part of the university's 41st Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event.
Holder called for a "new American engagement" and urged citizens to rid themselves of "ideological blindness" and "dangerous complacency" in rising to the challenges of the times.
"Institutions thought central to the American government, the press, the courts, have today been challenged. The reliance on facts to generate policy has been diminished and demeaned. The social progress we have made as a nation, that we have long fought for, is at risk, and effective alliances have been questioned," Holder said. "Unless proposed changes are rooted in the American values of tolerance, fairness, justice, respect for science and respect of others, that must be at a minimum questioned and, in the great tradition of the uniquely American experience, they must be opposed."
Holder spent less than five minutes speaking from a podium before retiring to a chair on a stage, alongside Interim Law School Dean James Gardner and former Law School Dean Makau Mutua, who moderated a question-and-answer session.
Earlier, Holder fielded questions for an hour inside a classroom in UB's O'Brian Hall.
He was asked why his office didn't prosecute individuals in connection with the collapse of financial markets in 2009.
"The bottom line is, if we could have made the cases, we would have," he said. "It wasn't for lack of trying."
When asked for his reflections on being the first black person to lead the Justice Department, Holder responded that he simply "didn't want to mess up."
"The thought in your mind is that you don't want to disappoint," he said.
Holder also weighed in on the recent friction between the judicial branch and executive branch and President Trump's penchant for criticizing judges, which he characterized as "worrisome" because judges have no way of really defending themselves against the personal attacks.
"In demeaning the court that way, challenging some of the pillars that I think make this nation great, that has a long-term negative impact that's just not good," he said.
But Holder said any talk of a "constitutional crisis" due to the current back and forth between the Trump administration and the courts was " a little bit overblown."
The case involving an executive order on immigration that was rejected by the Ninth Circuit was an example not of crisis, but of how the American system works. A court ruled that the order was not constitutional, and now the Trump Administration has said it plans to rewrite the order. "I don't think there's a constitutional crisis in that sense," said Holder.