Loretta E. Lynch has made history.
With today’s Senate vote to approve her nomination, she will be the 83rd U.S. Attorney General—and the first African-American woman to hold that office.
Lynch, 55, knew she was placing herself in the cross-hairs of a political battle when President Barack Obama placed her name in nomination five months ago. With little time and a long docket, she must now prove herself in the midst of a storm.
She will have to navigate allegations of race-based police killings, as well as address a sensitive agenda that includes the threat of cybercrimes and terrorism, and national policies on immigration, voting rights, Wall Street chicanery, and the future of Guantanamo Bay—all while under the scrutiny of a Republican-controlled Congress and a conservative-led Supreme Court.
Evidence of what that scrutiny will mean came on January 28, when Lynch appeared before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about her intentions should she become Attorney General. However, it was really Eric Holder, not Lynch, who was the target of Republican members (and by implication President Obama himself). The questions directed towards Lynch reflected as much criticism of Holder, who was resigning after six contentious years, as it did concerns about Lynch's qualifications.
Holder has been an outspoken champion of racial justice, immigration, same-sex marriage, and reforms on Wall Street. Married to the sister of the late Vivian Malone, who desegregated the University of Alabama, he once described himself as Obama's “wing-man.”
In many ways, that was accurate. He used the Attorney General's office to address the social justice issues Obama highlighted during his election campaigns. In the past year, those issues got a sharper focus with the police killings of unarmed civilians in several cities, which ignited nationwide protests and an ongoing national debate about police use of force.
Lynch inherited both Holder's docket and the controversy surrounding him. At her hearing, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), now a candidate for president, peppered Lynch about her position on immigration, due to Holder's support of the Dream Act which gives amnesty to illegal immigrants. With great poise, this daughter of a librarian and Baptist minister—one brother (deceased) was a Navy SEAL and the other a Baptist minister—refused to back down to Sen. Cruz, and said she supported amnesty.
At that January hearing, Senators also questioned whether Lynch believed water-boarding was torture. Yes. Supported the legalization of marijuana? No, she does not agree with Obama on this issue. Would she continue the National Security Agency program of counter-terrorism surveillance? Yes, she believed it is an effective tool.
In her opening statement, Loretta Lynch said, “protecting the American people from terrorism must be the primary mission of today's Department of Justice.”
She won praise from the Democrats' side of the aisle.
“I see a combination of steel and velvet,” remarked Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), at that January hearing.
Lynch is diminutive, standing about 5 feet tall. Her southern graciousness —she is a native of Greensborough, North Carolina—combined with a determined spirit will certainly be beneficial in the political maelstrom that is Capitol Hill. The Judiciary Committee voted 12-8 in her favor, on February 26. But, the full Senate vote was stalled until this week because of GOP efforts to tie her nomination to passage of an unrelated bill on sex trafficking.
In New York, we know her well. After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and spending some time in private practice, Lynch entered the U.S. Attorney's office in New York and rose up the ranks in the Eastern District of New York; she was twice confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, which covers Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Long Island. She also served briefly as a Special Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she prosecuted cases arising from the 1994 genocide.
Although she has been responsible for high-profile cases such as the 2014 indictment of Staten Island Republican Congressman Michael Grimm (who has since resigned), and the 1999 prosecution of the police officers responsible for the brutal attack on Abner Louima in Brooklyn, NY, Lynch has remained out of the national limelight.
Her focus has been primarily on the law. In a revealing interview about her Rwanda experience with Bloomberg Politics, she declared, “You use the law, not because the law is perfect, but because it is the instrument through which we forge justice.”
The stalling over her vote was criticized by many as unprecedented in recent history; according to some reports, the process has taken longer than any other nominee for a cabinet post in the past three administrations. Pamela Meanes, president of the National Bar Association, even drafted a 'cease and desist' order to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is blamed for the delay. Obama called this historic delay “embarrassing.”
With less than two years left in the Obama Administration, Lynch has little time for new initiatives.
And extending the legacy of Eric Holder will certainly raise further opposition from Republicans. Differentiating herself from Holder was a key point made by Republicans and some Democratic Senators. When asked if she was just like Eric Holder, nominee Lynch calmly responded, “I am not Eric Holder. I am Loretta Lynch.”
Now that she has entered the national stage, America will soon find out how Attorney General Lynch will address the nation's diverse concerns. If her past record is any indication, it will be with grace and tenacity.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY), is a writer and legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court, United Nations and major legal issues. She welcomes comment from readers. Her Twitter handle is @GBrowneMarshall. An earlier version of this essay was published in other media.