- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who challenged the country last week to confront race relations, has found himself on both sides of the courtroom on civil rights cases during his eight-year tenure at a high-profile Washington law firm.

And during his last stint at the Justice Department - when he served as deputy attorney general, the agency’s No. 2 position, from 1997 to 2001 - the number of civil rights enforcement cases taken through the courts to a verdict fell, records show.

Mr. Holder, the first black person to hold the nation’s top law enforcement job, called the United States a “nation of cowards” for not discussing more openly the country’s troubled racial history and vowed that the department, under his leadership, would take a greater role in fighting racism and other discrimination.

His comment, viewed by some as incendiary, continued to receive attention at the end of the week, when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked by reporters whether President Obama agreed that the United States was essentially a nation of cowards.

“I have not talked to the president about that,” he said. “I think what the attorney general discussed was, or talked about, was that for many years in this country all races have struggled with discussions about race.”

A review of Mr. Holder’s private legal practice shows that he represented companies accused of discrimination as well as individuals who claimed their civil rights had been violated by the federal or state governments, among many other cases.

Until recently, Mr. Holder was part of the pro bono group that represented Dennis Patrick Brown, according to written answers he provided the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing. Mr. Brown was wrongfully convicted of rape nearly 20 years ago in Louisiana and was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2005 through work by the Innocence Project-New Orleans.

The group then offered the case to Covington & Burling, which Mr. Holder joined in 2001 after serving as the deputy attorney general in the Clinton Justice Department. The firm was asked to pursue a still-pending federal case that claimed Mr. Brown was deprived of his constitutional rights and a state case seeking compensation.

“They’ve been incredibly attentive to Dennis as a client as well as a case,” said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project-New Orleans. She said she has had no contact with Mr. Holder, only with others in the group, but she’s glad Mr. Holder has seen an instance in which justice didn’t live up to its name.

“I’m glad we have somebody in such an important office who understands the depths of, and the extent of, the problems people suffer at the hands of the criminal justice system,” she said.

During Mr. Holder’s four years as deputy attorney general, during which he oversaw the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, among many other responsibilities, the number of civil rights cases filed in U.S. district courts and carried through to a verdict fell from a high of more than 1,800 in 1996 to about 1,400 in 2001.

A Justice Department spokesman did not return a call Friday seeking comment.

According to the Justice Department´s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the number of civil rights cases filed in federal courts rose through the mid-1990s and has been on a steady decline since. The agency has said the trend was largely attributable to employment-discrimination cases, which rose from 8,413 in 1990 to nearly 23,800 in 1997 and then declined to 14,353 in 2006.

Among other cases Mr. Holder has taken in the private sector, MBNA Corp. hired him in 2001 to represent the credit card company - now part of Bank of America - to fight off an employment discrimination case.

Firoozeh Butler said the company harassed her, denied her promotions and discriminated against her because she is Persian. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled for the company in 2004.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about this,” Ms. Butler told Legal Times in December. “I hope to God [that Mr. Holder] doesn’t get confirmed.”

Ms. Butler couldn’t be reached Thursday.

Mr. Holder also represented UBS Financial Services in cases alleging that the company established a branch in Prince George’s County to provide “segregated” services to blacks.

The court granted summary judgment on the company’s behalf.

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