Attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch maneuvered deftly through her confirmation hearing Wednesday, pledging to retain her independence and restore some frayed relations on Capitol Hill.
Pressed about Obama administration policies, from immigration to marijuana enforcement, Lynch avoided major sand traps and unexpected commitments as she presented herself as the voice of reason before the 19-member Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress, a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance,” Lynch said.
A 55-year-old native of Greensboro, N.C., Lynch currently serves as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn.
With her father, the Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, and other relatives sitting behind her, and her mother, Lorine, watching back home in Durham, N.C., Lynch attributed her law enforcement strengths to the “tenacity and resolve,” as well as “insight and compassion” she learned from her family.
Red-clad members of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, also populated the hearing that began at 10 a.m. and concluded, following several breaks for lunch and Senate votes, shortly before 6 p.m..
For strength, Lynch carried with her the Navy SEAL Trident earned by one of her brothers, Lorenzo Lynch Jr., who died in 2009.
Lynch cited cyber crime, national security and the targeting of “financial fraudsters” as among her top priorities. She stressed that while she was “not involved” in Obama’s controversial executive action deferring deportation of immigrants, she said under repeated questioning that she found the Justice Department’s legal analysis reasonable.
Flexing her law enforcement muscles, Lynch called the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance programs “certainly constitutional and effective” and said “the federal narcotics laws will still be enforced” even as states legalize marijuana. In particular, she said she would focus on the “money laundering aspect” of the federal drug laws, and she said she personally does not support legalizing pot.
At times, she emphasized the importance of maintaining an arms-length distance from the president who nominated her.
“The attorney general has a unique responsibility to provide independent and objective advice to the president, or any agency, when it is sought; and sometimes, perhaps, even when it is not sought,” Lynch said.
Often she spoke succinctly, as when she was asked about harsh interrogation techniques authorized during the George W. Bush administration.
“Waterboarding is torture,” Lynch said, “and thus illegal.”
Some senators, she seemingly failed to win over. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of her most aggressive questioners, said her answers were “discouraging” and “do not auger well.”
If confirmed, as nonetheless seems certain, Lynch would replace Attorney General Eric Holder, who has served since 2009.
Loathed by conservative Republicans and voted in contempt of Congress by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives in June 2012, Holder was an invisible presence in the spacious second-floor Hart Senate Office Building hearing room. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn told Lynch that “Attorney General Holder’s record is heavy on our minds,” and Holder’s alleged shortcomings were repeatedly thrown at Lynch.
“Over the last few years, public confidence in the department’s ability to do its job without regard to politics has been shaken, with good reason,” said Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee chairman.
Eighty-two U.S. attorneys general will have preceded Lynch since 1789. She would be the first African-American female to hold the office.
Born in May 1959 in Greensboro, N.C., where her father was a Baptist minister, Lynch graduated from Harvard College and, like the president, Harvard Law School. They were not classmates.
She served as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn following law school where she handled gun, narcotics and organized crime cases. She was part of the team that handled the civil rights case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was sexually assaulted by uniformed police officers in 1997.
Her first stint as U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York was during the final years of the Clinton administration. She then went into private practice, while working pro bono for two years as counsel to the prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.
Obama subsequently chose her in 2010 to return to the U.S. attorney’s office. Her office has handled sensitive, high-profile cases such as the investigation of former Rep. Michael Grimm. A one-time FBI agent, Grimm eventually resigned his House seat and pleaded guilty last December to a single count of tax fraud.
Lynch has also overseen investigations and cases in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, as well as Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. She supervises a staff of about 170 attorneys and 150 support personnel.
“She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s hard-working,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the judiciary panel’s senior Democrat and a former prosecutor himself. “She’s a prosecutor’s prosecutor.”
It will be a big jump to the Justice Department, with its approximately 124,000 employees and myriad opportunities for conflict with a Republican-controlled Congress. Nearly a third of the Justice Department’s $27 billion-a-year budget goes to the Bureau of Prisons.
In response to a question from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lynch said the death penalty is “effective,” and she cited her own office’s pursuit of it. At the same time, she suggested a willingness to examine both mandatory minimum sentences and the use of solitary confinement.
“We have to listen to the evidence that comes before us on how to handle that prison population in a way that is both constitutional and effective,” Lynch said.
The confirmation hearing continues Thursday, with nine witnesses scheduled to testify.