When U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. leaves office next week, he leaves behind some big shoes to fill.
But if anyone is qualified to fill those shoes, it is his successor Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District in New York for the last five years after her appointment by President Barack Obama.
And just like Holder, Lynch, 55, a staunch Democrat, is prepared to deal with the Republican-dominated Congress. If you have any doubts, check out how she handled the five-month delay of her confirmation — like a champion.
She’s also the first Black woman to serve in the position.
While controversy swirled around her delayed confirmation by the Senate, Lynch set about handling her daily business, nabbing terrorists who threatened the safety in the U.S., prosecuting white-collar criminals, and overseeing the federal probe into the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man who died in a chokehold at the hands of a White New York City police officer last summer, sparking ongoing protests against police brutality.
Lynch’s aides tell The New York Times that improving police morale and finding common ground between law enforcement and minority communities would be among her top priorities.
Additionally, the aides say she plans to restructure her office to be more responsive to cybersecurity cases, much in the same way that officials restructured the office in response to terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Here are the four top things we would like to see Loretta Lynch tackle immediately:
Police misconduct and civil rights
Before Holder took over as U.S. Attorney General six years ago, concerns about police misconduct and civil rights appeared to fall on deaf ears when it came from the federal government.
Holder essentially has made fighting police misconduct the cornerstone of his tenure, including releasing a comprehensive report about deeply entrenched racism in Ferguson, Missouri that fostered the culture that led up to the death of Michael Brown, a Black unarmed teen, who was gunned down last summer by White officer Darren Wilson after a brief encounter. The report, which found systemic racial biases at every level in the city’s criminal justice system, resulted in the firing of the police chief and several court officers. Now, Brown’s parents have announced plans to file a civil suit against the city.
Indeed, the deaths of unarmed Blacks has fomented a civil rights renaissance, known as #BlackLivesMatter. Most recently the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man who was shot in the back by a White officer in North Charleston, South Carolina after a traffic stop, has sparked outrage. There is also the case of Eric Harris, who was shot and killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma by reserve deputy Robert Bates, who meant to fire his Taser.
Lynch comes equipped to handle such prosecutions, having won the conviction of New York City Police Officer Justin Volpe in Brooklyn in 1999 for sodomizing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in one of the most sensational police brutality cases of its time.
Holder has been tough on terror, convicting and incarcerating dozens on terrorism-related charges. Not only that, he has collected intelligence from and about terrorists throughout the criminal justice system.
Lynch is also known for being tough on terror and we need this to remain a priority. But we won’t have to worry too much about her attention to this matter. On Monday, just days before her confirmation, her office announced the sentencing of American citizen Marcos Alonso Zea, also known as “Ali Zea,” to 25 years in prison following his September 9, 2014 guilty plea to attempting to provide material support to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to a release from her office.
The complaint partly accuses Zea of planning to travel overseas in the fall of 2011 in order to wage “violent jihad” against the perceived enemies of Islam, which included the government of Yemen and its allies.
“Marcos Alonso Zea presents a chilling reminder of the danger presented to the United States by homegrown terrorists,” Lynch says in the statement. “Born, raised, and schooled in the United States, the defendant nevertheless betrayed his country by attempting to join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, assisting a co-conspirator’s attempt to join that terrorist group, and, after learning he was under investigation, attempting to destroy evidence of his guilt.”
Criminal sentence reform
Holder has not been shy about the importance of reducing prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, who were convicted to stiff sentences during the nation’s War on Drugs during the 1980s. Holder considers sentence reform a major success of his tenure, and a bipartisan measure to ease sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders is pending on Capitol Hill. The bill apparently has the backing of Lynch, aides tell The Times, noting that it is not a personal passion for her as it was for Holder. They say it is unclear if she will make the bill an early priority.
We think it should be. Here’s why: new data shows that prosecutors are pursuing mandatory minimums in just over 51 percent of drug cases in the fiscal year 2014, down from nearly 64 percent of such cases in fiscal 2013, according to statistics released by Holder in February, reports CNN. The reduction comes amidst a drop in prison populations and lower crime rates, Holder said.
Lynch’s lackluster passion for sentence reform runs parallel to her position on the legalization of marijuana. During her confirmation hearing in February, she told members of the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee that she does “not support the legalization of marijuana,” CNN says.
“I can tell you that not only do I not support the legalization of marijuana, it is not the position of the Department of Justice currently to support the legalization,” she said. “Nor will it be the position, should I be confirmed as attorney general.”
But states’ rights prohibit the federal government from overreaching into prosecution for the sale and possession of marijuana, which is increasingly being legalized in cities across the nation.
Voting rights have been under attack from the right since mostly minorities elected Obama president—twice. As a result, the Department of Justice has monitored state laws that would significantly change how elections are conducted and has continued to ensure that state practices and procedures comply with federal law.
But Holder’s job got a lot harder in 2013 when the Supreme Court voted to gut the Voting Rights Act by ruling Section 4 unconstitutional. He said the court’s decision had the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country and vowed to use “every legal tool that remains available to us—against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.”
Lynch, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina who has experienced and confronted racial inequality in her 55 years, likely will take up this issue with zeal.
Still, Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard law professor and longtime friend, tells The Times that Lynch is no ideologue:
“She’s not going to do things to please some wing. She’s not a caricature of anything. She is a prosecutor.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty