CAPITOL HILL —
After more than five months of delays, the U.S. Senate has confirmed Loretta Lynch as America’s 83rd attorney general – the first female African American to hold the post.
Lynch, 55, becomes the nation’s top law enforcement official at a time of continued terrorist threats, concerns about government data collection, and strife between local police departments and minority communities.
President Barack Obama nominated federal prosecutor Lynch last November, before Senate control switched from Democrats to Republicans. Thursday, the Senate voted 56-43 to confirm her, with all Democrats and 10 Republicans backing her nomination.
The president said Thursday in a statement that "America will be better off" with Lynch running the Justice Department. She's expected to be sworn in Monday.
"Loretta has spent her life fighting for the fair and equal justice that is the foundation of our democracy," Obama said. "As head of the Justice Department, she will oversee a vast portfolio of cases, including counterterrorism and voting rights; public corruption and white-collar crime; judicial recommendations and policy reviews – all of which matter to the lives of every American, and shape the story of our country."
Her nomination had been stalled after Senate Democrats held up passage of legislation aimed at cracking down on human trafficking, due to an anti-abortion amendment inserted into the bill by Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by refusing to bring Lynch’s nomination to a vote before resolving work on the trafficking bill.
The parties reached a compromise this week on the abortion measure, and the legislation passed Wednesday by a vote of 99-0.
She will succeed Eric Holder Jr., who in a statement praised her as "a gifted attorney, a consummate professional and a dedicated public servant."
Holder said that over her career – which includes twice serving as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York – Lynch has earned the respect of "law enforcement officers, civil rights leaders and criminal justice officials of all political stripes. In every case and every circumstance, she has demonstrated an unfailing commitment to the rule of law and a steadfast fidelity to the pursuit to justice."
Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that as the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, "Ms. Lynch brought terrorists and cyber-criminals to justice. She obtained convictions against corrupt public officials. She fought tirelessly against violent crime. Ms. Lynch has protected the rights of victims. She has a proven record prosecuting human traffickers and protecting children."
No senator questioned Lynch’s resume or track record. But Jeff Sessions was among several Republicans who objected to her defense of Obama’s executive order shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“We are deeply concerned about the president’s executive amnesty, the unlawfulness of it," he said. "Ms. Lynch has said that she supports those policies. The Senate must never confirm an individual who will support and advance a scheme that violates our constitution and eviscerates established law and congressional authority."
For months, Democrats blasted Republicans over the delay in scheduling her confirmation vote, noting that Lynch waited longer than all seven previous attorney general nominees combined.
Senator Claire McCaskill said Republicans were setting a dangerous precedent. "It does not get any uglier than this. What my colleagues on the other side of the aisle [Republicans] are saying today: ‘It does not matter if you are qualified. We have a new test. You must disagree with the president who nominates you.'"
Lynch assumes the post at a time of a rapid expansion of rights for gay people, challenges to voting rights, and highly publicized deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of local police departments.
Last month, the Justice Department declined to bring federal charges against a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the shooting death of an African-American man, but it accused the police department of racism.
Lynch will continue Holder’s work on such matters, according to legal analyst Michele Jawando of the Center for American Progress.
“We will see Attorney General Lynch move forward with that same type of objective view that the law requires," he said, "but also saying, ‘I understand that there are some systemic challenges that disproportionately affect communities of color.’”
Jawando said Lynch will bring her life experiences as a female African American to the job, but she said her track record as a tough federal prosecutor suggests those experiences will not affect her judgment or her execution of the law.
When Obama nominated Lynch in November to become America's top law enforcement official, she articulated a commitment to justice.
"The Department of Justice is the only Cabinet department named for an ideal," she said. "And I will work every day to safeguard our citizens, our liberties, our rights, and this great nation which has given so much to me and my family."
Born in 1959, she was raised in North Carolina in what was then the segregated South. Her mother Loraine, now a retired schoolteacher, "refused to use segregated restrooms because they did not represent the America in which she believed," Lynch said at her January confirmation hearing.
Her father, Lorenzo Lynch, opened his Baptist church to civil rights activists, including those trying to peacefully integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. As a girl, she went with him to watch court proceedings when the family moved to nearby Durham.
"I realized the power the law had over your life and how important it was that the people who wield that power look at each situation with a sense of fairness and evenhandedness," Lynch told The Network Journal in 2007. The publication covers black professionals and small businesses.
She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1984 and, as a newly minted attorney, went to work for a Wall Street firm for six years.
Joined U.S. attorney's office
In 1990, she became a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York. She helped prosecute the case against several New York Police Department officers accused of beating and sodomizing a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, with a broomstick in a Brooklyn precinct station’s bathroom in 1997. One officer was convicted of the assault; another later was given a five-year sentence for perjury.
The case, which involved white officers, fanned widespread interest concern about police brutality against black men.
That issue has gained prominence again in recent years, exploding with last August’s shooting death of teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The U.S. Justice Department investigated and released a searing report in March. Among other things, it said Ferguson police routinely violated the constitutional rights of African-Americans by using excessive force against them, often making arrests without probable cause.
Other police forces, in at least a handful of cities including Cleveland, Ohio, are under federal scrutiny.
In the most recent case, the Justice Department on Tuesday opened an investigation in Baltimore, Maryland, where Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, suffered spinal cord injuries during his arrest last week and later died.
Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability, praised outgoing attorney general Holder’s work at the Justice Department as "extremely important" and said he assumes Lynch will maintain that goal of better community policing.
"She just needs to continue the work that’s already in progress," said Walker, an emeritus criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Barbara Fleury, an official with the International Association for Chiefs of Police, said her organization endorsed Lynch’s nomination.
Members of the association, based near Washington, "really look to the United States for professional development … in terms of cutting-edge technology and training for all levels of policing,” said Fleury, international vice president and a former Canadian Mountie.
She said of troubling situations such as Ferguson that "it’s important that the public have trust…. Our police officers have to be accountable for their actions and pursued if their actions are inappropriate or illegal."
Terrorism also will continue to demand attention, especially as Islamic State and other militant extremist groups encourage recruits to wreak havoc domestically. On Monday, for instance, six Somali-American men in Minnesota were brought up on conspiracy charges related to their trying to travel to Syria to join the IS group.
Lynch comes from one of few U.S. federal courts – including New York and Virginia – with experience in prosecuting terrorist cases, Foreign Policy reported this week.
"She’s coming from the Eastern District of New York, which in its own quiet and steady way has been doing terrorism cases since right after 9/11," Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, told the news organization. She alluded to plots to bomb both New York’s Federal Reserve Bank and the New York subway.
Lynch also worked pro bono with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up to prosecute those involved in the 1994 genocide and related crimes. In 2005, she served as special counsel to the tribunal’s prosecutor, probing charges of witness tampering and false testimony, according to The Network Journal. She has called it one of her "most gratifying public service undertakings."
She’s married to Stephen Hargrove, who works for the premium TV channel Showtime, and has two step-children.
VOA's Carol Guensburg also contributed to this report.