President Obama on Saturday announced the nomination of Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, to be the next U.S. attorney general. Within hours, at least one Republican was already questioning her credentials: Chuck Grassley said that “U.S. attorneys are rarely elevated directly to this position” and he promised a “thorough vetting.”
The suggestion that a U.S. attorney is unequipped to serve as attorney general makes about as much sense as claiming that a governor is unprepared to serve as president; while there is a jump in scope, the executive experience lays a strong foundation for leadership at a higher level.
The reality is that Lynch is an eminently qualified nominee who is widely respected within the Department of Justice and the legal community. Her nomination represents an important move for the White House to include new leaders in the final two years of the Obama administration.
Lynch has twice served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, an important jurisdiction covering Brooklyn, where she handled terrorism, civil rights, and political corruption cases. While it is rare for a U.S. attorney to be selected directly for the position of attorney general, the broad portfolio of cases that Lynch handled and her penchant for getting the job done while “flying under the radar” make her a great fit for the job.
Lynch commanded one of the most important U.S attorney’s offices while also serving as the chair of Attorney General Eric Holder’s Advisory Committee, which advised Holder on policy matters. While she never got, nor sought, the publicity that defined the cases brought by Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, she gained a reputation within the Department of Justice as a great lawyer and colleague.
Her nomination represents an important shift for a White House that has tended to nominate those from within its own ranks for high-level positions. The administration had an array of candidates who had experience in the White House or at Main Justice, but the Lynch nomination signals that the administration is looking for new leaders from outside its own ranks to step up and take the helm in the final two years of the administration.
This independence is particularly important for the Attorney General because she may have to prosecute cases that are deeply unpopular. Lynch prosecuted both Republican and Democratic politicians on corruption charges and her lack of experience in the administration is actually a plus; she comes to the job with an integrity and independence that is owed to her rise through the ranks of a U.S. Attorney’s office. When President George W. Bush was sworn in 2001, Lynch had hoped to stay on as the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District because, she said, ''There's a good group of people working here: the prosecutors, judges, agents and investigators.” For her, this was more than a job; ''It's a like a family. I'll miss the people most of all.'' Bush asked for Lynch’s resignation but her willingness to serve under a Republican president demonstrates that she is not a political operative; she has sincerely dedicated her career to the Department of Justice.
The longevity of her experience at the U.S. Attorney’s office has equipped her to handle the wide range of cases that the attorney general handles. After joining the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1990, she served as the deputy of the office at a time when she handled an array of cases that, the New York Times reported, “involved Hasidic Jews who worked as drug couriers; the commander of the government's antidrug war in Colombia, who never reported that his wife was smuggling heroin; and a volunteer Republican fund-raiser accused of campaign corruption.” Lynch became well-known for her prosecution of the NYPD officers who used a stick to sodomize a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima. During her prosecution, one officer plead guilty and the others were convicted but she took steps to ensure that the case was not what she called a “referendum on race.”
Of course, part of the reason that Lynch’s nomination is historic is because, if confirmed, she will be the first African-American woman to serve as attorney general. The Department of Justice has been the federal agency most heavily responsible for ensuring the advancement of civil rights for African-Americans in the United States. Lynch herself had to overcome racism to get where she is today; she recalled having to retake a test at her predominantly white elementary school in North Carolina because her score was considered too high— when she retook it, she did even better.
The Obama administration has extended an olive branch to the Senate Republicans by choosing someone whose independence and apolitical judgment are beyond reproach. Loretta Lynch has twice been confirmed by the Senate for her leadership positions at the Department of Justice. Now, the Senate should confirm her for attorney general without political obstruction.