Loretta Lynch, a Harvard-educated attorney, was approved by the US Senate to become the next attorney general on Thursday. She will be the first black woman, and the second woman after Janet Reno (1993-2001), to occupy the post.
Nominated by President Obama, Lynch was confirmed by a vote of 56-43 which ended 166 days of partisan deadlock. The five-month wait for a vote caused by a dispute between Democrats and Republicans was longer than the time it took to appoint the last seven attorneys general combined.
Republicans have expressed doubts about whether she would be able to act independently of the Democratic government.
“The attorney general’s office - which used to be an independent office that actually enforced the law - no longer is that,” said Texas Rep. Kevin Brady on April 17.
Echoing Brady’s sentiments mere hours before the vote, Senator Ted Cruz called Lynch an unfit candidate who was “unwilling to impose any limits whatsoever on the authority of the president of the United States.”
Cruz had previously criticised Lynch for her support for President Obama’s executive actions that limited deportations for millions of people living illegally in the United States, which she called “reasonable” and “lawful.”
Cruz, a presidential candidate from the Republican Party, however, was the only senator who did not vote on Lynch’s confirmation.
The confirmation vote had been held up due to negotiations between Democrats and Republicans regarding a human trafficking bill.
Democrats objected to what they considered an anti-abortion clause while Republicans refused to vote until an agreement was reached.
In the end, both parties reached a compromise where the revenue for the victims’ fund would be split into criminal fees which could not be used for healthcare but for law enforcement and legal aid, while money from Congress, subject to the Hyde Amendment that bars taxpayer dollars from funding abortion, would pay for health and medical services. Democrats were able to limit the Hyde Amendment to federal funds only while Republicans ensured no abortions would be performed under the trafficking measure.
Speaking after Lynch’s confirmation, President Obama said “America will be better off” with her as attorney general.
“Loretta has spent her life fighting for the fair and equal justice that is the foundation of our democracy.”
Lynch was the Brooklyn prosecutor during the infamous police brutality case over the assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
Kenneth Thompson, then a junior member of the trial team - now Brooklyn district attorney- praised Lynch for encouraging him to deliver opening statements in the Louima case instead of stepping in herself.
“It shows Loretta is more interested in doing justice than getting the limelight,” he said.
Lynch served as US attorney for the Eastern District, comprised of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, from 1999 to 2001. Practicing private law in the meantime, she returned to the same top prosecutor position in the district in 2010.
During her time as US district attorney, her office prosecuted mobsters, terror suspects, corrupt public servants and politicians in both parties and won substantial settlements in fraud cases linked to major banks.
Eric Holder, the former attorney general, praised Lynch in a statement after her confirmation.
“At every stage of her career, Loretta has earned the trust and high regard of allies and adversaries alike, both in Washington and throughout the country,” he said.
Republicans had criticised Holder as overly political and in lockstep with President Obama.
Holder’s Justice Department “is a department desperately in need of new direction and leadership,” said Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader and one of the ten Republicans who voted for Lynch.
“I am hopeful that Ms. Lynch will use her lengthy professional experience and skills to provide the new leadership, reform and improved relations with the Congress.”
Lynch is expected to be sworn in next week.