Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday he is resigning as soon as a replacement is found, though he and the Justice Department still face contempt of Congress charges that will linger well after he officially gives up the office.
Analysts said Mr. Holder — the first sitting Cabinet official ever to face a contempt citation from Congress — will likely duck any legal punishment, though his department will soon be forced to begin turning over the documents he withheld, which sparked the initial fight. It’s just the latest in a series of stormy disputes that have defined his turbulent six-year tenure.
From declining to defend the Defense of Marriage Act to backing President Obama in a losing constitutional battle over presidential recess appointments and fighting — unsuccessfully, so far — to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Holder has been the spearhead for most of Mr. Obama’s major legal decisions.
He earned praise from Democrats who backed the president’s agenda and who said Mr. Holder used the Justice Department to advance minority rights, but drew fierce derision from Republicans who said he politicized the Justice Department and set a precedent that could be abused by future administrations.
“Eric Holder is the most divisive U.S. attorney general in modern history,” said Rep. Darrell E. Issa, the California Republican who, as chairman of the House oversight committee, led the push to hold Mr. Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over documents detailing how the Justice Department handled the investigation into the botched Fast and Furious gunwalking operation.
Mr. Obama, though, delivered a litany of successes as he stood with Mr. Holder at the White House on Thursday: prosecuting terrorism cases in civilian courts, winning financial settlements from companies implicated in the 2008 Wall Street crash, cutting sentences for felons convicted of drug crimes, suing Arizona to try to halt that state’s strict immigration law and suing other states that enacted voter-ID laws, arguing they would disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
“As younger men, Eric and I both studied law, and I chose him to serve as attorney general because he believes, as I do, that justice is not just an abstract theory, it’s a living and breathing principle,” Mr. Obama said.
“It’s about how our laws interact with our daily lives,” the president said. “It’s about whether we can make an honest living, whether we can provide for our families, whether we feel safe in our own communities and welcomed in our own country.”
Mr. Holder, 63, was confirmed by the Senate on a 75-21 vote in 2009, becoming the first black attorney general. Despite repeated rumors of an impending departure, he stayed into the second Obama administration, serving as the chief law enforcement officer for longer than all but three others.
Over those six years he’s been at the center of many of the controversies of President Obama’s tenure, including the investigation into the IRS’s targeting of tea party groups, the push for stricter gun controls, deciding to curb enforcement of drug laws in states that are moving to legalize marijuana’s use and wading into race-laced cases in Florida, Missouri and elsewhere.
Most recently, his appearance in Ferguson, Missouri, helped calm a community that had been wracked with days of protests and sometimes violent clashes between police and residents enraged over the shooting death of a black man by a white officer.
In Washington, his clashes with Congress have been bitter, with many Democrats praising him for taking steps to advance Mr. Obama’s agenda and Republicans accusing him of ignoring or subverting the law.
Chief among those was his decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. House Republicans stepped in, tasking House lawyers with defending the law — which was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court last year, which Mr. Obama said Thursday “vindicated” Mr. Holder’s decision.
“It’s a pretty good track record,” Mr. Obama said.
But on Mr. Holder’s watch the Justice Department lost a number of high-profile cases as well, including seeing a unanimous Supreme Court shoot down several of Mr. Obama’s recess appointments. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel had issued an opinion arguing the president was on solid ground, but that argument was soundly rejected by the court’s nine justices.
The contempt case was the most recent hiccup for Mr. Holder. A federal judge in Washington this week rejected his requests for a monthslong delay in turning over documents related to the Fast and Furious gunwalking operation.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence he’s resigning as the courts are ruling the Fast and Furious information has to be released,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a public interest watchdog that has regularly battled Mr. Holder in the courts.
During Fast and Furious, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents knowingly allowed guns to be sold to traffickers, who shipped hundreds of them into Mexico, where they were used by drug cartels in the commission of crimes.
Two of the weapons turned up at the scene where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010, effectively ending the program but beginning the yearslong investigation.
Initially, the Justice Department denied to Congress that guns were intentionally being allowed to “walk” but later issued a stunning recantation of that claim, acknowledging they had misled Capitol Hill.
But while the department turned over documents related to the gun operation, it refused to release documents about its own response — including the lead-up to the false claim.
In 2012 the House voted 255-67 — with 17 Democrats joining the GOP — to hold Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress.
The Obama administration said it would not prosecute Mr. Holder because of a long-standing policy that it not pursue contempt cases against individuals when the White House has made a claim of executive privilege.
But, in this case, that claim didn’t come until just days before the House vote, Mr. Fitton said.
“The dirty secret was that Obama swooped in and, in an unprecedented way, asserted executive privilege over these documents, which the Justice Department used as an excuse not to prosecute him,” Mr. Fitton said.
After he leaves office, the fight over the documents will continue, but Mr. Holder himself is likely safe from any fallout, analysts said.
“The suit is in his official capacity, so I think the new AG, whoever that is, will be substituted as defendant in the suit under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It should have no bearing on his departure or his life after his service as AG,” said Stanley M. Brand, a former general counsel to the House who specializes in defending witnesses facing government investigations.
For his part, Mr. Holder has expressed anger at the contempt case, and said he believed it was driven by the National Rifle Association. The NRA, which releases a congressional scorecard deemed to be powerful in swaying lawmakers’ votes, had announced it was scoring the contempt vote.
In a hearing earlier this year, when Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, accused Mr. Holder of taking the citation lightly, Mr. Holder bristled.
“You don’t want to go there, buddy,” he replied. “You don’t want to go there, OK?”