WASHINGTON — Eric Holder, sworn in Tuesday as attorney general, promised a clean break with the past policies of the Bush administration, saying the Justice Department will be "no place for political favoritism."
"I am determined to ensure that this shall be a new day for the dedicated career professionals that I am so honored to call my colleagues," Holder told various employees and dignitaries gathered for the ceremony. He said he was committed to remaking the department "into what it once was and what is always should be."
Vice President Joe Biden administered the oath to President Barack Obama's pick for the nation's top law enforcement officer, the first African-American to hold the post.
Biden said the department, under Holder, would return to a past standard of "no politics, no ideology. Only a clear assessment of facts and law."
Hundreds of department employees packed the hallways and stairways to welcome Holder. To loud cheers and applause, he pledged to remake the department by "taking it back to what it once was and always has to be."
Holder was confirmed Monday evening by a 75-21 Senate vote, with all the opposition coming from Republicans.
Holder takes over a department wracked by Bush administration scandals over politically motivated hirings and firings. He has pledged to restore its reputation.
For starters, the new attorney general will learn the secrets of the Office of Legal Counsel, whose lawyers justified the use of controversial interrogation tactics and even declined to provide Bush administration documents to internal Justice Department investigators.
Holder also will play a major role in the future of terrorism detainees.
Obama, in a major policy shift, signed an executive order to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. He also created a special task force to review detainee policy; Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will serve as co-chairs.
That panel will look at options for apprehension, detention, trial, transfer or release of detainees and report to the president within 180 days.
Holder promised senators he would review why career prosecutors in Washington decided not to prosecute the former head of the department's Civil Rights Division. An inspector general's report last month found that Bradley Schlozman, the former head of the division, misled lawmakers about whether he politicized hiring decisions.
Another key question facing Holder is whether to reverse former President George W. Bush's order that three of his former top aides — Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten — should not testify before Congress about firings of U.S. attorneys. Rove and Miers were former aides when Bush gave his order.
If Obama reverses Bush's policy, it would create a new legal issue: whether a former president's order against testifying would still be valid.
The Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program is certain to come under Holder's scrutiny.
After a lengthy and heated debate that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks, Congress last year eased the rules under which the government could wiretap American phone and computer lines to listen for terrorists and spies.
Holder promised one senator that he would re-examine a ruling by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey that immigrants facing deportation do not have a right to government-provided lawyers. Holder said he understands the desire to expedite immigration court proceedings, but added that the Constitution also requires that proceedings be fair.
Holder's chief supporter, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the confirmation was a fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream that everyone would be judged by the content of their character.
"Come on the right side of history," said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.