WASHINGTON (AP) — In a second trail-blazing pick for the nation’s top law enforcement officer, President Barack Obama intends to nominate a federal prosecutor in New York to become the next attorney general and the first black woman to lead the Justice Department.
Obama’s spokesman said Friday that he will announce his selection of Loretta Lynch from the White House on Saturday. If confirmed by the Senate, she would replace Eric Holder, who announced his resignation in September after serving as the nation’s first black attorney general.
Lynch, 55, is the U.S. attorney for Eastern New York, which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, a position she also held under President Bill Clinton.
“Ms. Lynch is a strong, independent prosecutor who has twice led one of the most important U.S. attorney’s offices in the country,” Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.
Obama had planned to wait until after a trip to Asia next week to announce the choice but then moved up the decision after news organizations began reporting that she was his choice.
The White House said Obama is leaving it up to Senate leadership to determine whether she should be confirmed this year while Democrats are in control or next year after Republicans take over. But the White House said their hope is she will be confirmed as soon as possible.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have told the White House it would be difficult to win confirmation for a new attorney general during the lame-duck session of Congress beginning next week, especially considering all the other competing priorities they face before relinquishing power to Republicans. Pushing through a nominee also quickly could taint the new attorney general’s start in the office, some Democrats have argued.
It’s unusual for Obama to pick someone he doesn’t know well for such a sensitive administration post. But at a time when Obama is under political fire, Lynch’s distance from the president could be an asset in the confirmation process. Another candidate Obama asked to consider the job, former White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, asked not to be nominated out of concern her close relationship to Obama could lead to a difficult confirmation effort.
Republicans are promising tough scrutiny after years of battles with Holder. He is close to Lynch and appointed her as chair of a committee that advises him on policy. Since Lynch is unfamiliar to many on Capitol Hill, senators will have to get up to speed on her record quickly.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, expressed “every confidence that Ms. Lynch will receive a very fair, but thorough, vetting by the Judiciary Committee.”
“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,” Grassley said. “I’m hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the attorney general as a politically independent voice for the American people.”
One lawmaker in particular — in the House — is quite familiar with her work. Lynch filed tax evasion charges against Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican accused of hiding more than $1 million in sales and wages while running a restaurant. Grimm, who won re-election Tuesday, has pleaded not guilty and is to go to trial in February.
Lynch has overseen bank fraud and other public corruption cases, including the March conviction of New York state Assemblyman William Boyland Jr. after he was caught accepting bribes in a sting operation and the 2013 conviction of former state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. for looting taxpayer-subsidized health care clinics he ran.
She also charged reputed mobster Vincent Asaro and his associates for the 36-year-old heist of $6 million in cash and jewelry from a Lufthansa Airlines vault at Kennedy Airport, dramatized in the movie “Goodfellas.”
During her first tenure in the Eastern District, Lynch helped prosecute police officers who severely beat and sexually assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
Lynch grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of a school librarian and a Baptist minister. She received undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, where Obama graduated from law school seven years after her. Personally, she goes by Loretta Lynch Hargrove, having married Stephen Hargrove in 2007.
Holder was an unflinching champion of civil rights in enforcing the nation’s laws and is leaving as the department grapples with several prominent civil rights issues. They include possible federal charges in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; enforcement of the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court threw out a major protection; reduction of racial profiling in federal investigations; changes in how federal prosecutors negotiate sentencing; changes in the death penalty system; and efforts to reduce tensions between local police departments and minority communities.
In a speech earlier this week, Holder described the dual perspective he brought to the job and how it applied to the Ferguson shooting, in which a young black man was shot and killed by a white policeman. He said he had the utmost respect for police as a former prosecutor and the brother of an officer. But, he added, “As an African-American man who has been stopped and searched by police in situations where such actions were not warranted, I also carry with me an understanding of the mistrust that some citizens harbor.”
Holder told The Associated Press in an interview that he’s not sure whether the Justice Department will finish its investigation into the shooting before he leaves. “I don’t want to rush them,” Holder said. He said once out of office, he will direct attention to “issues that have animated me” during his tenure, including criminal justice and civil rights.
“If you asked me what my biggest regret was, I would say that it was the failure to pass any responsible and reasonable gun safety legislation after the shootings in Newtown,” Holder said. He said he thought in the aftermath of the school shootings in Connecticut that the nation would embrace change that was “not radical but really reasonable” on gun ownership.
Holder aggressively enforced the Voting Rights Act, addressed drug-sentencing guidelines that led to disparities between white and black convicts, extended legal benefits to same-sex couples and refused to defend a law that allowed states to disregard gay marriages
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