President Obama’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, is likely just a few days away from making history as the first African-American woman to ever hold that post.
She's expected to be confirmed by the Judiciary Committee this week, after which the full Senate is likely to vote her in. Lynch currently serves as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. For you non-lawyers out there, that basically means that Lynch is in charge of prosecuting all the federal crimes that take place in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island, an appointment she has actually held twice, first under President Bill Clinton and then again under President Obama. As one can imagine, Lynch has been quite busy for the past few decades, prosecuting everyone from Wall Street bankers to terrorists.
So, who is she?
Lynch is a study in legal career success. The 55-year-old, who was born in North Carolina, went to Harvard and then steadily climbed her way from lowly corporate law firm associate up. By the end of this week, she may arrive at the top, as the nation’s chief attorney. In an eloquent but understated opening statement to the Judiciary Committee (which kicked off a marathon day of hearing testimony), Lynch spoke movingly of her librarian/teacher mother and minister father.
Almost as moving for me, as a fellow female attorney of color, was Lynch’s uncanny ability to dodge, quite graciously, the venomous spitballs lobbed at her by many of the Republican members of the committee, who expressed bitterness towards Obama and current Attorney General Eric Holder. These interactions showed what Lynch would likely take on as Attorney General, and how she would deal.
She's Against Legal Marijuana:
Unlike Obama and her predecessor Eric Holder, Loretta Lynch has taken a public stance against the legalization of marijuana. The current administration has been content to look the other way as states start legalizing weed, but Lynch, in a moment of candor, said that she felt increased use of the drug brings increased associated criminal activity to communities.
An impassioned attorney general against marijuana legalization, which Lynch may very well be, could shut down the pot industry in those states where it has been legalized, since federal law (under which pot is banned) preempts state laws. This is unlikely — Lynch herself said she probably wouldn't start enforcing such laws that her predecessor hadn't — but having her in office definitely could slow down legalization in new states.
She Agrees With Obama's Exec Action To Stop Deportation:
In another bit of testimony that has received less airplay, Lynch slipped in that she felt Obama’s recent executive action to stop the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants was not amnesty but a “temporary deferral.” Technically, she is correct in that the executive action merely delays deportation of the affected immigrants for three years. The realistic implications, though, are wide — and Lynch did not address them. Anyone with a green card can, after a certain number of years, apply for citizenship or a renewal of status.
She's Not Afraid To Go After Police:
When Lynch was a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office, she sent a police officer to prison for 30 years for a violent attack on a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima. The 1997 case was nationally known and became a symbol of broken relationships between cops and the people they police.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Lynch will take over potential prosecution of recent police brutality incidents, which have shocked the nation into a state of distrust towards law enforcement. In December, Attorney General Holder said the Justice Department will investigate the death of Eric Garner, the New York man killed by a police stranglehold earlier this year, after a grand jury failed to indict the officers involved. Given the timing, actually conducting that investigation will likely fall to Lynch.
Lynch's style in her hearing shows that she supports the antiseptic beauty of technical interpretations over bold, controversial statements. It is this kind of thinking that, while somewhat boring, may actually result in progress in those areas where Obama and the Justice Department have spectacularly failed: specifically, the closing of the detainee prison in Guantanamo Bay (a commitment made by President Obama in his initial presidential campaign), and the successful prosecution of Chinese and Asian cyber-attacks on American websites, e-mail, and data. It may take a less-vocal — but collegial and by-the-book — thinker to finally move these tasks along.
Whatever Lynch chooses to take on (and as AG, she would have some discretion to choose), she will have to tap all her evident abilities in order to face several hurdles, the primary one being time. Even with an early February confirmation, Lynch will have barely two years on the job. Repairing the relationship between Congress and the Department of Justice, which Lynch would take over from the embattled Holder, will be no easy task. Fortunately, she is already on her way; she's clearly won over several of the Republican Committee members, explaining that she wants to work with them and hopes to learn from their knowledge. She actually seemed sincere, too.
After seeing Lynch in action during her testimony, it seems clear that, if confirmed, her work will likely merit more than just a footnote in history textbooks. Here's hoping she won't simply be the first African-American female AG, but a professional who helped repair a nation that was fractured — both by outsiders and from within.