In a letter last week from Deputy Attorney General James Cole to House Speaker John Boehner, Cole wrote, “We will not prosecute an executive branch official under the contempt of Congress statute for withholding subpoenaed documents pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege.”

This, in effect, removes any criminal charges against Attorney General Eric Holder and momentarily nullifies an unprecedented action by the House of Representatives to cite Holder with contempt of Congress–the first time such a sanction has been imposed on a sitting member of the president’s cabinet. Many observers of the dispute were bewildered by a contempt charge that, in the end, might have the Justice Department prosecuting one of its own.

After the House Committee on Oversight and Government voted to send the matter to the full House by a vote of 23-17, the House voted 255 to 67, with 17 Democrats voting yes and one voting present.

The citation against Holder stemmed from Operation Fast and Furious, an anti-gun-smuggling tactic that went awry in Mexico and led to the death of a U.S. border agent, whose body was found with two of the weapons the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lost while trying to track them to bust bigger operatives in the drug cartel.

Holder and the Justice Department had surrendered more than 7,500 documents related to the plan, but this was not enough to satisfy the House Committee, led by Darrell Issa, a Republican representative from California, who, since President Barack Obama’s election, has been determined to undermine the administration.

When Holder refused to provide the committee with additional data and details of the operation, Obama enacted an executive privilege, indicating that Congress had no authority to gain further access to the operation.

“My efforts to resolve this matter…were rebuffed by Congressman Issa and his supporters,” Holder told the press after the vote. “It’s clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or obtaining the information they claimed to seek.”

Far more defiant than Holder was the action of Democratic members of the Republican-controlled House, who marched off the House floor en masse while other colleagues were casting their votes.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon, walking hand in hand with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, led the delegation from the House while chanting, “Shame on you,” to the Republican members.

Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, blasted the entire proceedings, charging that it was a “terrible day for the House of Representatives.”

Though the Democrats stopped short of citing race as motivation for their vote, it’s clear, as Pelosi suggested earlier, that this was just another gambit by the GOP to hamper the Justice Department’s efforts to fight the increasing rise of voter suppression. But Rep. Charles Rangel, fresh from his primary victory, did not hesitate to voice his rejection of the vote and praised his colleagues in their decision to protest.

“Today, I proudly joined my Democratic colleagues in walking out during the vote holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress,” Rangel said in a press statement. “The vote represents a perversion of the job of the House of Representatives led by the Republican majority. When we are elected by the good people of our districts, there is an expectation that we will work for our constituents and the American people. Instead of taking that job seriously, House Republicans are engaging in frivolous political theater in an attempt to embarrass President Barack Obama in an election year.

“We are not elected to do what the National Rifle Association wants,” Rangel continued. “It is a shame that the powerful National Rifle Association managed to capture the votes of many representatives by putting a vote on its scorecard that really has nothing to do with gun rights. Why are they involved in this issue?

“Attorney General Holder has worked consistently and diligently in good faith with the congressional investigation of the Fast and Furious gunwalking operation. The Justice Department has turned over almost 8,000 documents, including every single document pertinent to the tactics in this investigation and the other flawed investigations that occurred in Arizona during the Bush administration.”

“This is a very sad hour,” said Lewis, after a moment of silence outside the meeting place.

“This is not about race,” added House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “It is, however, about confrontation over cooperation.”

The irony of all this is that there is unlikely to be any criminal proceedings since the Justice Department, in effect, would have to pursue the contempt citation, which it declined to do in 2008 against White House officials during the Bush administration. As for the civil citation against Holder, by the time it works its way through the courts, Holder will be long gone.