Attorney General Eric Holder makes a statement at a press conference at the Justice Department in Washington, DC on August 21, 2014
Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama paid a deeply personal tribute to his Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday, as a man with whom he shares bonds of friendship and race said he would resign.
Holder, the first African American to hold the top law enforcement post, is seen as a champion of civil rights by supporters but reviled as an ideologue by Republicans.
He wiped away a tear at a White House ceremony, as Obama hailed his friend as an exemplar of justice.
Holder's departure triggers what could be a divisive Senate confirmation battle for whoever Obama selects as his replacement, particularly as mid-term elections in which Republicans seek to overturn Democratic control of the Senate are just six weeks away.
"This is bittersweet," said Obama, but empathized with the sacrifices made by Holder's family as he served in one of the toughest jobs in government.
The president said Holder had devoted his life to ensuring that the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness set out in the Declaration of Independence were available to all Americans.
"He believes, as I do, that justice is not just an abstract theory, it’s a living and breathing principle," Obama said.
The president hailed Holder's legacy in fighting violent crime and corruption, prosecuting terrorism cases, improving civil rights and safeguarding financial markets.
Holder is one of just three original cabinet members still serving in the job they took when Obama assumed power in 2009, alongside Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"We have been great colleagues, but the bonds between us are much deeper than that," Holder told Obama.
"In good times and bad, in things personal and in things professional, you have been there for me."
Only three other US attorneys general have served longer than Holder, whose tenure was notable for significant inroads made in the civil rights arena, including gains in rights and benefits for same-sex couples and reductions in prison sentences for certain drug offenses.
Holder's departure was not a surprise. He has long indicated that he did not plan to serve through the entirety of Obama's administration -- and some sources said the president had already prevailed on his friend to delay his departure.
As it is, Holder has agreed to stay on until his successor is confirmed -- a period that could be prolonged given the noxious politics in Washington.
- Rocky relations with Congress -
Holder's time in office, however, was marked by rocky relations with Congress, where Obama's Republican opponents control the House of Representatives.
In June 2012, the House voted to hold him in contempt for what it deemed his lack of cooperation on an investigation into "Operation Fast and Furious."
This was a bungled US federal sting that sought to probe weapons trafficking along the US-Mexico border, but ended up accidentally allowing arms to fall into the hands of gangs.
There were also calls for his resignation from conservative lawmakers, who accused him of being less than forthcoming during a congressional probe into allegations that the Internal Revenue Service -- the nation's tax-collecting authority -- unfairly targeted conservative Tea Party groups.
One of his fiercest critics, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, was scathing Thursday in his assessment of the departing attorney-general.
"From Operation Fast and Furious to his misleading testimony before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the department’s dealings with members of the media and his refusal to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS' targeting of conservative groups, Mr. Holder has consistently played partisan politics with many of the important issues facing the Justice Department," Goodlatte said.
Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was equally blunt.
"I could not support the President's nomination of Eric Holder in 2009 because of the many questionable decisions he'd made as Deputy Attorney General," said McConnell.
"Five years later, I'm confident in the wisdom of that decision. Holder has placed ideological commitments over a commitment to the rule of law."
- 'Symbol of fairness' -
But supporters, including Democrats and members of the African American community, heaped praise on Holder for his role championing causes in the area of civil and human rights.
"His resignation is a great loss for any American seeking justice in our society," said Congressman John Lewis, a revered civil rights activist.
"He became the symbol of fairness, an embodiment of the best in the federal government... (and) a consistent leader in the struggle for civil and human rights," Lewis said.
Holder's role in civil rights matters was on full view this summer when he traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to help defuse racial turmoil after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen.
His career was distinguished by law enforcement firsts. In 1993, he was named the first African-American appointed as US attorney in Washington, DC. he was appointed to the post of by Ronald Reagan and served as deputy attorney general Bill Clinton.