White House

Obama nominates first African-American woman for attorney general

Loretta Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, June 17, 2013.
Loretta Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, June 17, 2013. AP

President Barack Obama on Saturday nominated New York-based U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as the nation’s attorney general.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lynch, an experienced federal prosecutor who has held the U.S. attorney position under two presidents, would be the first African-American woman to oversee the Justice Department. Holder, who is retiring, was the first African-American to hold the high-profile post.

"It's pretty hard to be more qualified for this job than Loretta Lynch," Obama said, accompanied at the White House by Lynch and Holder.

The president made the announcement in the Roosevelt Room. On Friday, when her name became the subject of day-long speculation, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest described Lynch as a “strong, independent prosecutor who has twice led one of the most important U.S. attorney’s offices in the country.”

The timing of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet been set, and could get tricky. The White House said it wants Lynch confirmed as soon as possible, but that it’s up to the Senate when that happens.

Democrats will only control the Senate for several more weeks during the post-election lame-duck session. Republicans take over in January, and a frequent administration critic, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, will chair the Judiciary Committee.

“The Constitution compels the Senate to live up to its responsibility to advise and consent at all times, including so-called lame-duck sessions,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, adding that “the Senate should move swiftly to confirm” her.

Lynch’s previous confirmation sojourns before the Senate have proceeded very smoothly, with a senior Democratic member of the judiciary panel, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, calling her in 2010 a “prosecutor par excellence” as well as “brilliant” and “dedicated.”

The Senate confirmed her for the U.S. attorney position by voice vote.

“I have every confidence that Ms. Lynch will receive a very fair, but thorough, vetting by the Judiciary Committee,” Grassley said in a statement. “U.S. attorneys are rarely elevated directly to this position, so I look forward to learning more about her, how she will interact with Congress, and how she proposes to lead the department.”

Born in 1959 in Greensboro, N.C., where her father was a pastor, Lynch graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She and Obama did not attend Harvard Law School at the same time.

Lynch served as a prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn, for 11 years. She handled an array of gun, narcotics and organized crime cases and 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.

“When we are confronted with evil that walks the earth, we turn to the law,” Lynch said during her 2010 swearing-in ceremony.

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 with the New York office of the firm Hogan and Hartson, while keeping her hand in public service. From 2002 to 2007, Lynch worked pro bono 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.

Among the recent high-profile cases handled by Lynch’s Eastern District of New York office: The 20-count indictment of Rep. Michael Grimm, a New York Republican who has pleaded innocent and won re-election this week. He goes on trial in February.

From her Brooklyn office, Lynch has 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.

It will be a big jump to the Justice Department, with its approximately 124,000 employees and its myriad opportunities for conflict with a Republican-controlled Congress. Holder, her predecessor, had particularly contentious relations with certain GOP lawmakers, and in 2012 the Republican House of Representatives voted to hold Holder in contempt.

“I’m hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the attorney general as a politically independent voice for the American people,” Grassley said.

Greg Gordon of the Washington Bureau contributed.