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California Legislature enlists former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to defend against Trump

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U.S. Attorney Eric Holder Jr. poses for pictures at the 50th Anniversary of the march on Washington and Martin Luther King’s Speech, August 24, 2013.(Photo courtesy Shutterstock)
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Bracing for an adversarial relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, the California Legislature has selected former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to serve as outside counsel to advise the state’s legal strategy against the incoming administration.

The unusual arrangement will give Holder, leading a team of attorneys from the firm Covington & Burling, a broad portfolio covering potential conflicts between California and the federal government.

“He will be our lead litigator, and he will have a legal team of expert lawyers on the issues of climate change, women and civil rights, the environment, immigration, voting rights — to name just a few,” Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) said in an interview.

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Such a task typically falls to the state attorney general. On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown formally nominated Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra to replace former state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who now serves in the U.S. Senate. Becerra, whose nomination hearings in the Legislature begin next week, is expected to be easily confirmed.

But De Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon began contemplating hiring outside legal counsel for the Legislature almost immediately after Trump’s election, in hopes of protecting existing state policies that are at odds with the president-elect’s stated positions.

“While we don’t yet know the harmful proposals the next administration will put forward, thanks to Donald Trump’s campaign, Cabinet appointments and Twitter feed, we do have an idea of what we will be dealing with,” Rendon said in a statement.

“The Covington team will be an important resource as we work with the governor and the attorney general to protect Californians,” he added.

The two legislative leaders have taken an unabashedly combative posture against Trump. Rendon, in remarks last month at a swearing-in ceremony for lawmakers, described the incoming administration as a “major existential threat,” and asserted “Californians do not need healing. We need to fight.”

De Leon said the additional counsel would offer “more legal firepower” that would complement and bring additional heft to the state attorney general’s efforts.

“Hiring the former attorney general — the nation’s top lawyer — it shows that we’re very serious in protecting the values of the people of California against any attempt to undermine the policies that has made us the fifth-largest economy in the world,” De Leon said.

Bringing on outside counsel is not unprecedented for the Legislature. The state Senate hired special counsel for a select committee investigating price manipulation in the wholesale energy market by Enron in the early 2000s. The Senate also sought outside counsel to sort through the federal investigation of former Democratic state Sen. Ron Calderon, who later pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

But it is far more unorthodox for both houses to join together in retaining counsel in a preemptive bid to prepare for as-yet-unknown litigation and policy-making at the federal level. Much of the arrangement remains murky, including how Holder’s efforts will differ from or align with Becerra’s.

Also unclear: the price tag. Aides to legislative leaders declined to specify how much Covington & Burling’s services will cost the state, citing still-unfinished contracts, but said the payment would come out of both chambers’ operating budgets and would not require additional state funds.

Holder, who was a partner at Covington from 2001 until 2009 before rejoining the firm in 2015, will direct the efforts from the firm’s Washington, D.C., office. The firm, which has a long-established presence in the nation’s capital, has in recent years expanded its footprint in California. Covington’s Los Angeles office, which will play a major role in working with the Legislature, was launched in part by former federal prosecutor Dan Shallman, whose brother, John Shallman, is a prominent Democratic strategist whose clients include De Leon.

“I am honored that the legislature chose Covington to serve as its legal advisor as it considers how to respond to potential changes in federal law that could impact California’s residents and policy priorities,” Holder said in a statement provided by De Leon’s office.

“I am confident that our expertise across a wide array of federal legal and regulatory issues will be a great resource for the legislature.”

Holder, a close friend of President Barack Obama, left the Justice Department in 2015. As one of the most liberal figures in the Obama administration, his tenure was defined by a focus on civil rights and criminal justice reform and was marked by a tumultuous relationship with Congress and scandal stemming from the failed gun-trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious.

Representing California lawmakers against Trump won’t be Holder’s sole foray into politics in the coming years. He is also overseeing a Democratic campaign focused on redistricting, the process of redrawing political maps that, in recent years, has tilted state legislative and congressional landscapes in the Republicans’ favor.

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