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Eric Holder on Supreme Court term limits and other proposed reforms

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend some time thinking about the ripple effects of that Supreme Court draft opinion that shocked the country when it was leaked earlier this month. It signaled that the justices are poised to overturn the decision that legalized abortion, Roe v. Wade. The leak of the draft opinion has reignited debates over the power of the high court and whether it needs reform. But it's not the first action by the court to provoke that debate. It's just the latest. And one person who's thought a lot about this is former Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder, who served in the Obama administration and was the first African American to serve in that position, is just out with a new book. It's called "Our Unfinished March." And in it, he argues in favor of changes, including significant change to the process for appointing justices. When we spoke, he told me what brought him to that conclusion.

ERIC HOLDER: The Shelby County case in 2013, where the court essentially gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is the pearl of the civil rights movement, and did so in a way that was inconsistent with the findings that Congress had made - thousands of pages of evidence, thousands of pages of testimony, near unanimous authorization or reauthorization in Congress, both at the House of Representatives and in the Senate, signed by - or the re-authorization signed by a Republican president. And yet five justices decided to turn their backs on all of that and came up with a rationale, as expressed by the chief justice, that America has changed. The court has shown itself, I think, to be ideological - not necessarily partisan, but ideological in a way that's inconsistent with what their duties are. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book. And you're very correct in saying my concerns about the Supreme Court predate anything that the court might do with Roe v. Wade.

MARTIN: You offer very specific proposals to reform the court. One is to institute 18-year term limits. Another is to ensure that every president picks two justices in each term that they're in office. Given what you know about Washington and given what you know about the politics of the current moment and politics in recent years, why would people who think that they're winning buy into these ideas?

HOLDER: They won't agree to it. I mean, that's just the reality. But the reality also is that they are in the minority, and that's what people need to remember. You know, we talk about a variety of things in the book. Gerrymandering - you know, you look at partisan gerrymandering, which allows for these unpopular, not popularly supported abortion laws that - anti-abortion laws - that the court is now considering. Because of gerrymandering, you can, as a state representative, vote for an anti-abortion law that you know your constituents don't support and not face any electoral consequence. And so it's incumbent upon those of us in the majority here to express ourselves, as we talk about in the book, as other people - ordinary citizens - so-called ordinary citizens have in the past when we have had systemic problems, systemic changes that were necessary to implement. I still think that capacity exists within the American people to become involved and to be change agents in the way that our predecessors have been. But understand, there will be fierce opposition from that minority.

MARTIN: But what exactly should people do right now? You could see the argument that some have made - in fact, frankly, people who are progressives have made and that other people have made - is that this is a political failure on the part of Democrats and progressives in failing to focus on state legislatures in the way that Republicans have, in failing to focus on the court as a galvanizing issue in the way that conservatives had. And this is the end result. So if that's the case, what do people do?

HOLDER: Well, you know, some of that criticism is justified. And so what do we do? Get in the game. Get off the bench. So it's a question of being active, being engaged, understanding that elections matter even when there's not a president that we are in the process of selecting. What you said is exactly right. Focusing on elections at the state and local level are just as important as what happens at the federal level. And I would actually argue that state legislatures have an impact - a greater impact on the day-to-day life of American citizens than the United States Congress does. And we need to understand that and focus our attention on those lower level - so-called lower-level elections.

MARTIN: That was the former attorney general, Eric Holder. He is out with a new book. It's called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote - A History, A Crisis And A Plan." And it's out now. Mr. Attorney General, thank you so much for talking with us once again.

HOLDER: All right. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.