Dubbing six years at the helm of the Justice Department "a pretty good run," President Obama on Thursday announced that Attorney General Eric Holder will be stepping down - a "bittersweet" moment, the president noted, in the career of one of just three remaining members of his original cabinet.
For his part, Holder - the fourth-longest-serving attorney general in United States history - said his resignation is marked by "mixed emotions." Unsubtly suggesting he'll continue to collaborate with Mr. Obama, though, he emphasized he's "very sad" that he won't be "a formal part -a formal part" of the president's final two years in the White House.
"We have been great colleagues, but the bonds between us are much deeper than that," Holder said. He added that his tenure at the Justice Department has been "the greatest honor of my professional life."
Holder, a 63-year-old former judge and prosecutor, took office in early 2009 as the U.S. government grappled with the worst financial crisis in decades and with divisive questions on the handling of captured terrorism suspects.
The first African-American to hold the post of attorney general, he's also tackled race-focused issues, working to improve police relations with minorities, enforce civil rights laws and remove disparities in sentencing. In 2009, he charged the United States with being "a nation of cowards" for its aversion to addressing those problems.
Most recently, Holder became the Obama administration's point man in the federal response to the police shooting last month of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. In the shooting's aftermath, he enlisted a team of criminal justice researchers to study possible racial bias in law enforcement.
Holder recalled Thursday watching Robert Kennedy "prove during the civil rights movement how the department can and must always be a force for that which is right. I hope that I have done honor to the faith you have placed in me, Mr. President, and the legacy of all those who have served before me."
Mr. Obama commented that Holder "has shown a deep and abiding ability to one of our most cherished ideals as a people, and that is equal justice under the law."
But it's been a contentious six years, as Holder's fielded a succession of controversies. The first half of his tenure saw an ultimately abandoned plan to try terrorism suspects in New York City, a botched gun-running probe along the Southwest border that prompted Republican calls for his resignation and what was seen as failure to hold banks accountable for the economic near-meltdown.
Holder's relationship with congressional Republicans, in particular, came to a head in 2012, when the House voted to hold him in contempt for refusing to turn over some internal documents related to the gun-running debacle, known widely as "Fast and Furious." The vote made him the first-ever sitting cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California - perhaps Holder's most frequent adversary - released a statement Thursday assuring there's no love lost between the two.
"Eric Holder is the most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history," he said. "Time and again, Eric Holder administered justice as the political activist he describes himself as instead of an unbiased law enforcement official. By needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement, Attorney General Holder's legacy has eroded more confidence in our legal system than any Attorney General before him.
"...While President Obama and the Senate should work expeditiously to find a replacement," Issa continued, "time and care must be taken to ensure that our next Attorney General recognizes and does not repeat Mr. Holder's mistakes."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus reiterated those laments in his own statement, calling Holder's departure "overdue" and claiming he "lost the public's trust years ago."
Still, as he waded out of one political storm and always into another, Holder vowed repeatedly to stay on "well into 2014," turning in his final stretch to issues he cited as personally important to him. Those included laws he felt were biased toward minority discrimination and same-sex rights.
Mr. Obama says he has not yet made a decision about who will replace Holder. Some names that have circulated as possible successors include Solicitor General Don Verrilli, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole, Massachusetts and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota and Gov. Deval Patrick, D-Massachusetts - both casual mentions in conversations about Democrats who might take on Hillary Clinton in 2016 - also reportedly appeared on speculative shortlists, but were quick to remove themselves from contention.
"I intend to continue my work for the people of Minnesota as their Senator," Klobuchar said in a statement. "We have a lot of work ahead in Congress in the next year and I want to be there to do it."
Patrick told USA Today the role of attorney general is "an enormously important job but it's not one for me right now."
California Attorney General Kamala Harris was another name being floated, but as she considers a run for governor or the U.S. Senate in the coming years, she released a statement stymieing whispers about her interest in the AG seat. Harris landed headlines last year after the president called to apologize to her for making repeated remarks about her appearance.
Verrilli has his own history with Mr. Obama: Among the cases he's argued in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of the administration involved the president's recess appointments and Obamacare.