WASHINGTON — Loretta Lynch made history Monday as she became the nation’s first female black attorney general, who now must confront a litany of legal, political and management challenges.
Vice President Joe Biden swore in the 55-year-old Baptist minister’s daughter, a native of Greensboro, N.C., ending a drawn-out Capitol Hill struggle that began with Lynch’s nomination last Nov. 8. Since then, political calculations made by both parties held her fate hostage and foreshadowed further complications ahead.
“It’s about time,” Biden said.
Time, however, is something Lynch might not have a lot of.
The Obama administration has less than two years remaining in office and faces a Congress controlled by Republicans.
Tops on Lynch’s to-do list are concerns such as finding a new Drug Enforcement Administration chief who can handle the agency following revelations about DEA agents participating in overseas sex parties. She’ll face tough decisions about secret surveillance programs, asset seizures and the sprawling federal prison complex, which accounts for nearly one-third of the Justice Department’s annual budget.
Of particular public concern will be how she manages the Justice Department’s response to a spate of allegations about police violence against minorities, beginning last August in Ferguson, Mo. On the very day that Lynch was sworn in, a funeral took place just 40 miles from the nation’s capital for Freddie Gray, a black resident of Baltimore who died from a spinal cord injury while in police custody. The funeral followed a weekend of street demonstrations.
Under former Attorney General Eric Holder, the department’s Civil Rights Division undertook a record number of investigations into a “pattern or practice” of discriminatory behavior by local agencies.
“We can imbue our criminal justice system with both strength and fairness, for the protection of both the needs of victims and the rights of all,” Lynch said during brief remarks.
“We can restore trust and faith both in our laws and in those of us who enforce them.”
She was accompanied to her swearing-in by her 83-year-old father, Lorenzo; her brother Leonzo; and her husband, Stephen Hargrove, as well as friends and colleagues. Crowded into the wood-paneled Attorney General’s Conference Room at the Justice Department, they listened as she cast her rise as a classic American tale.
“If a little girl from North Carolina who used to tell her grandfather in the fields to lift her up on the back of his mule, so she could see ‘way up high, Granddaddy,’ can become the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America, then we can do anything,” Lynch said.
Lynch replaces Holder, whose tenure since January 2009 was marked by acrimonious relations with congressional Republicans amid what Biden termed “a climate of political hostility.”
The Senate confirmed Lynch last Thursday on a 56-43 vote, more than two-and-a-half months after her Jan. 28 confirmation hearing.
Democrats contributed to the confirmation delay by deciding not to take up her nomination last year, while they still controlled the Senate. Republicans unhappy with the Obama administration’s immigration policies then put her off until an unrelated anti-human trafficking bill was finished.
“Even though Loretta Lynch had to wait an unduly long amount of time, America will find that she is worth waiting for,” asserted Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a longtime supporter.
Nonetheless, she may not get much of a political honeymoon as the 83rd attorney general.
Lynch will confront all of her challenges while serving a lame-duck president and dealing with a House of Representatives and a Senate controlled by Republicans who want to keep the administration on the defensive.
“We’re responsible for ensuring (the) laws are faithfully implemented and carried out by the executive branch,” Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at the National Press Club on Monday. “It’s something that I don’t think Congress does enough of.”
Lynch graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She then served as a prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn, for 11 years, handling myriad gun, narcotics and organized crime cases.
Her first stint as U.S. attorney, in the Eastern District of New York, came during the final years of the Clinton administration. She then went into private practice before returning in 2010 as U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.
The U.S. attorney’s job put Lynch atop a staff of about 170 attorneys and 150 support personnel. At the Justice Department, she will oversee about 114,000 employees and a budget of about $28 billion.
Some changes are already afoot. Holder’s politically connected chief spokesman, Brian Fallon, has left the Justice Department to take the top press secretary job with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.