Published February 24, 2017
Before he delivered the 41st Annual Martin Luther King Commemoration address last week, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spent an hour fielding a wide range of questions from students, faculty and alumni during a question-and-answer session in O’Brian Hall.
Holder’s visit was especially inspirational for a group of Buffalo Public Schools students from the Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School. Their visit was arranged through the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) housed within UB’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Led by Project Director Joseph Gardella — SUNY Distinguished Professor and John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry — ISEP works closely with BPS teachers and students in an effort to educate students about opportunities in the STEM fields.
Danya Flood, a ninth-grader in the Research Lab Program at MST, was impressed by the diplomacy with which Holder answered a question about newly confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former Republican senator from Alabama. Holder, who is a Democrat, said he didn’t oppose Sessions’ nomination. “It seems to me you ought to give people a chance, unless they’re wholly unqualified,” Holder said.
“His answer really surprised me,” Flood said. “On the news you always hear people saying this person doesn’t want this person to be in that position. He actually changed it around and gave an honest, thoughtful answer. I liked that.”
“I liked the question about the impact he has had on the future for black people by being the first black attorney general and how his office reacted to the police brutality in Ferguson and other places,” said MST senior Gloriah Aytch.
Holder was the first African-American to head up the nation’s justice department. He was appointed by President Barack Obama and served from 2009 to 2015. He is now a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling LLP.
James Gardner, interim dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB School of Law, introduced Holder to the audience, saying, “I am delighted to have in the law school one of the most prominent lawyers of our time.” With that, Holder opened up the floor to questions from the more than 150 people gathered in the Hodgson Russ LLP Classroom in O’Brian.
Holder was asked to share his thoughts on prosecuting white-collar crimes during the financial crisis; to reflect on police brutality cases in Ferguson, among other cities; how he feels he changed the narrative for African-Americans; and his views on sentencing guidelines.
Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, professor of law, asked Holder for his reflections on the lack of prosecutions of individuals associated with the financial crisis. Holder responded that the law limited the cases that could be brought. “If we could have brought them, we would have. It wasn’t for lack of effort. It was really on the basis of the facts and the law. We tried,” he said, adding that civil sanctions resulted in billions of dollars in fines being collected from banks involved with the crash.
Asked about his role as the nation’s first black attorney general, Holder said he felt an enormous amount of pressure to perform. “You don’t want to mess up,” he said. “My hope would be that by doing the job well — and history will have to be the judge there — I hope I made it easier for the next African-American, the next Asian, the Latino-American, the next woman to be considered to be attorney general of the United States.”
Holder added that generations of black lawyers before him were more than qualified to hold the title of attorney general. “The fact that it took until 2009 for me to show up is an indication that our country failed in that regard.”
A student asked Holder to reflect on some of the cases of police brutality against blacks that occurred during his tenure. While acknowledging that police have a difficult job, Holder said all cops, regardless of race, should receive more training on managing implicit bias. He also expressed concern over Sessions’ statement during his confirmation hearing that he felt the instances of police brutality were the result of a few rogue officers and not cultures within certain departments.
“I don’t think that, if you look at the cases that we brought, that we identified bad apples as much as we identified bad cultures within these departments,” Holder said. “The vast majority of cops want to do the job right. But to put them in a culture where they are inappropriately trained, where it’s an ‘us-against-them’ thing, we can’t expect to have good results.”
Asked for their thoughts after Holder’s Q&A, the MST students, who got to pose for a photo with him, said they were impressed with his candor. “He was very down to earth in answering the questions,” said MST 11th-grader Lanajah Swink. “He added in some humor to make people laugh.”
Noted Aytch, the MST senior: “It was uplifting to be in a room full of people who are getting an education or are at that point where they’ve made it there and are judges or lawyers. It’s inspiring. You see different levels of questions coming from high school students, college students, judges.”