Eric Holder, the United States' first black attorney general, will announce later on Thursday that he plans to resign from his post as soon as a successor can be confirmed, The Guardian reported. President Obama will make a statement about Holder's resignation from the White House Thursday afternoon, though he will not immediately announce who he plans to name as his choice to be the next attorney general.
A Department of Justice official said Holder has "no immediate plans" after he leaves office, but that he wants to "stay actively involved in some of the causes to which he has devoted his time in office" and that "following his recent visit to Ferguson, Missouri, he has spoken with friends and associates about his wish to find a way to continue helping to restore trust between law enforcement and minority communities."
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi confirmed Holder's resignation during a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, where he had been due to speak.
The news, first reported minutes earlier by National Public Radio, drew gasps from many in the audience and a panel including several prominent African American politicians.
Just beforehand, the panel had been praising Holder for his instrumental role in pushing the administration on sentencing reform and other key issues. "I do associate myself with the comments ... about the excellence our of great attorney general Eric Holder," Pelosi said.
She went on: "I do, then, want to say that the word is that the attorney general will resign today. He has served our country very well, but the message is that the attorney general will be submitting his resignation to the president."
Holder had been attorney general since the beginning of President Obama's administration, and will, if he remains in office through the end of the year, be the third-longest serving attorney general in US history. He had previously been the US attorney for the District of Columbia and then deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton, and a judge in Washington.
The date of Holder's departure from the administration had been a subject of much speculation for some time, spurred on by moments like a February 2014 New Yorker article in which Jeffrey Toobin reported, "Holder told me that he will leave office some time this year" - something the Justice Department disputed at the time.
NPR reported Thursday that Holder and Obama had talked about his resignation "several times" and had "finalized things in a long meeting over Labor Day weekend at the White House."
Holder had been at the forefront of the administration's efforts to tackle racial discrimination, famously accusing the US of being a "nation of cowards" when it came to discussing problems of racism in society.
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot," Holder said in a speech given during Black History Month in 2009, "in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."
In office, he pushed hard to reform federal sentencing laws and guidelines, trying to tackle wildly disproportionate incarceration rates for young black men and proposing sweeping reductions in sentences for non-violent drug offences.
And in recent months, Holder has been noticeably more vocal than the White House on issues of race, particularly during the disturbances in Ferguson, when he was sharply critical of the response by local police.
Holder had been a lightning rod for opposition to administration policies among Republicans, who led a vote of censure against him in the House of Representatives in 2012 over 'Fast and Furious', a failed anti gun-running operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
He had also been criticised by some on the right for action he took against Wall Street, including most recently a $17bn settlement with Bank of America over mortgage fraud leading up to the financial crisis. Conversely, he also came in for criticism from the left for the lack of criminal cases against key banking figures after the crisis.
Senate judiciary committee chair Patrick Leahy said Thursday he hated to see Holder leave and called for confirmation hearings as soon as possible. "It's going to be hard to find somebody," he told MSNBC.
"I hope no-one will try to block and up and down vote on the chief law enforcement officer in the country," he added. "It would be the height of irresponsibility."
"Holder's accomplishments have established a historic legacy of civil rights enforcement and restoring fairness to the criminal justice system," said a White House official.
"Holder revitalized the Department's praised civil rights division, protected the rights of the LGBT community, successfully prosecuted terrorists and fought tirelessly for voting rights, to name a few. He will remain at the Department of Justice until his post is filled."