RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Whoever becomes the nation's next attorney general will face a daunting array of issues - the same controversial issues that made Eric Holder a lightning rod for much of the last six years. Holder announced his resignation yesterday. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee tells NPR's Scott Horsley that when it comes to picking someone new to lead the Justice Department, the sooner the better.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: With the Senate in recess, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is home in Vermont. But he plans to return to Washington on Monday. Leahy's eager to sit down with President Obama and talk about possible nominees to replace Eric Holder.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: My whole point would be to move as quickly as the White House can because the whole Department of Justice needs the stability of knowing who's going to be the next attorney general.
HORSLEY: The White House hasn't spelled out its timetable. But the president has known since summer that his attorney general planned to step down. White House spokesman Josh Earnest says administration officials are hard at work choosing a successor.
JOSH EARNEST: That is someone who will have the kinds of skills and credentials that will merit a prompt and bipartisan confirmation bill.
HORSLEY: The reaction to Holder's departure was fiercely partisan, with Democrats generally praising the attorney general and Republicans asking what took him so long to leave? It's not clear his replacement will find any less of a political minefield.
KAREN GREENBERG: The next attorney general is going to have his plate full.
HORSLEY: Karen Greenberg directs the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.
GREENBERG: In particular, some of the surveillance issues that are going to be litigated over what the NSA was doing I think is going to be a big challenge.
HORSLEY: Greenberg says the country's in the middle of a heated debate over the limits on government spying, the legal treatment of terrorist suspects and the future of the Guantanamo prison. And those are just some of the highly polarizing arguments the next nominee for attorney general will have to wrestle with.
GREENBERG: In terms of the legacy of Eric Holder, sentencing reforms, the general criminal justice reforms, the Voting Rights Act which still needs serious tending, they are controversial issues. It could be somewhat of a holdup depending on how the politics play out.
HORSLEY: Holder never shied away from controversy, especially on race. Just this morning, he told a panel sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, for all the nation's progress on civil rights, there's a great deal of work to be done. Virginia Republican Randy Forbes, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, complained on the Fox Business channel that Holder put politics above the law. He hopes the next attorney general will be different.
REPRESENTATIVE RANDY FORBES: If the president continues to want somebody that's just going to be very partisan, very polarizing, an individual that's simply going to take a motto that the end justifies the means, I think is going to have a very difficult time getting that approved by the Senate.
HORSLEY: Some Republicans want to postpone consideration of any nominee until the new year, when a new Senate could have a Republican majority. But Democrat Patrick Leahy says that was not the GOP's position when Michael Mukasey was nominated as attorney general late in the term of former President Bush.
LEAHY: They had no objections to hurrying for George W. Bush's nominee. So, I mean, you can't have a double standard.
HORSLEY: If the vote is held this year, Senate Democrats could confirm a new attorney general with a simple majority. And Republicans would not have a chance to block it. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.