Watch CBSN Live

Will Eric Holder's successor shake off the political baggage?

Depending on who you ask, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has been a divisive political activist, or a steadfast champion of civil rights. Holder had the notoriety of serving as the nation's first African-American attorney general and also one of the nation's longest-serving, but also the infamy of being the first attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress.

To say that Holder's tenure was divisive is an understatement. During his six years as the nation's top law enforcement official, he was at the epicenter of some of the most politically explosive controversies of the past decade, such as the debate over criminal trials for terrorists and the federal government's role in opposing same-sex marriage. He became mired in controversy over the "Fast and Furious" gunwalking scandal, as well as the investigations into IRS misconduct.

"Many of these issues would be controversial regardless of the attorney general's role," Thomas Dupree, who served as deputy assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, told CBS News. However, he added, "Holder seemed in some cases to be willing more than other attorneys general to draw partisan lines."

Holder officially announced his resignation on Thursday, and he said he will stay on the job until President Obama names a nominee to replace him. Mr. Obama has yet to name Holder's potential successor, but whomever he chooses is sure to face a barrage of questions from Congress about Holder's legacy and continued agenda.

"It's going to be a challenge for the successor to escape the shadow of Eric Holder," Dupree said.

Eric Holder: "Mixed emotions" about resigning as attorney general

Should Mr. Obama find a nominee with a record as a strong, apolitical public servant, the Senate confirmation process for Holder's successor could go smoothly. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, for example, was confirmed easily earlier this year as the nation's new Health and Human Services secretary, even though her predecessor Kathleen Sebelius was often the target of political scrutiny.

Making the process easier, the Senate late last year changed the rules so that the minority party can no longer use a filibuster to block the confirmation of executive branch nominees. Still, the confirmation process could be politically charged, particularly during the midterm campaign season. Some Republican senators have suggested that Mr. Obama hold off on naming his nominee until after the November elections.

"I voted to confirm Mr. Holder to be Attorney General, and I had high hopes for his leadership. But, Attorney General Holder's tenure has been strained by his lack of respect for Congress, the American taxpayer, and the laws on the books," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a statement. "Rather than rush a nominee through the Senate in a lame duck session, I hope the President will now take his time to nominate a qualified individual who can start fresh relationships with Congress so that we can solve the problems facing our country."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, agreed the confirmation process should happen after the election. He said in a statement that it would be an "abuse of power" to let Democratic senators, "many of whom will likely have just been defeated at the polls," to confirm Holder's successor.

While his successor will likely want to keep the political fireworks to a minimum during Senate confirmation hearings, Holder wasn't afraid of confrontation during congressional hearings.

Eric Holder digs GOP congressman: “Good luck with your asparagus”

In a House Judiciary Committee hearing last year, Holder accused Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, who led the charge for the contempt vote against Holder, of "unacceptable and shameful" conduct.

During a Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, Holder got into a contentious back-and-forth with Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, when the congressman suggested Holder didn't take the contempt vote seriously.

"You should not assume that that is not a big deal to me," Holder said, pointing his finger at Gohmert. "I think it was inappropriate. I think it was unjust. But never think that that was not a big deal to me. Don't ever think that."

As their heated exchange came to a close, Holder muttered, "Good luck with your asparagus," referencing Gohmert's bizarre comment from a year earlier, when he charged Holder with "casting aspersions on my asparagus."

Dupree suggested that Holder was willing to be more combative on Capitol Hill in part because "he knew the president was behind him."

Indeed, when he announced his retirement on Thursday, Holder told Mr. Obama, "We have been great colleagues, but the bonds between us are much deeper than that. In good times and bad, in things personal and professional, you have been there for me. I am proud to call you my friend."

Holder on Thursday suggested that he'll continue to help Mr. Obama see through their agenda, even if he won't be "a formal part -- a formal part," he stressed -- of the president's final two years in the White House.

One former political appointee to the Justice Department likened Holder to past attorneys general who have served as a "confidant of the president," such as Robert F. Kennedy, John Mitchell, or Alberto Gonzalez. By comparison, other attorneys general like Michael Mukasey and Edward Levi kept more distance from political affairs.

"There's two sorts of lawyers that assume roles like attorney general and White House counsel," the former Justice Department official said. "Those who think of themselves as lawyers first and politicians second, and those who reverse the two. If you look at Eric, he's probably in the latter."

While Holder has said he wants to stay unofficially involved -- particularly in efforts to restore trust between minority communities and law enforcement -- his agenda remains unfinished at the Justice Department. The Ferguson, Missouri, civil rights investigation is still pending, for instance.

The former official said that even with a change in leadership, Holder's agenda could stay in motion at the Justice Department simply due to natural momentum. "The department is more like an aircraft carrier than a sailboat in its ability to change direction quickly," he said.

On the other hand, Dupree noted, "The danger with the daily business in any Justice Department is that there are a lot of issues competing for your attention. Unless there's someone in a leadership position really pushing it forward, there's the risk it will get overtaken by events and other items consuming the time and energy of the department's lawyers."

Different advocacy groups on Thursday made it clear they want to see Holder's successor carry on his agenda in areas like civil rights.

Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement that his organization, the National Action Network, is "engaged in immediate conversations with the White House on deliberations over a successor whom we hope will continue in the general direction of Attorney General Holder."

Sharpton added that Holder "has been the best Attorney General on Civil Rights in U.S. history."

The Human Rights Campaign praised Holder for championing gay rights and said that Mr. Obama should use the opportunity to appoint the nation's first openly gay cabinet member.

"Some Attorneys General wait for history, others make history happen. Attorney General Holder made history for the LGBT community," HRC president Chad Griffin said in a statement. "He was our Robert F. Kennedy, lightening the burden of every American who faces legal discrimination and social oppression."

View CBS News In