Yesterday Loretta Lynch testified before the United States Senate in her confirmation hearing to succeed Eric Holder as US Attorney General. Lynch is a two time US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn) and, if confirmed, would be the first black woman ever to hold the post. Here are five takeaways from yesterday’s hearing.
1) She established herself as an individual. Unsurprisingly, Lynch was well prepared for her marathon-day of a hearing. Throughout a session that lasted several hours, it was obvious that Lynch was well-briefed and well-versed on the law. That was to be expected and speaks directly to her qualifications for the job. What was even more apparent, however, was how well she had been prepped to maneuver the political wrangling of the GOP-led committee that would try and establish unfavorable connections between Lynch and the current administration. The advantage she had here was Lynch and Obama are not incredibly close. Lynch made abundantly clear that she is her own woman and would be “by herself” if confirmed, rejecting the implication that her tenure would be two years as an Obama puppet. Given the disdain many Republicans on the committee have for the President, that is unquestionably a smart move.
2) Her trickiest moment was on immigration. There were plenty of places where she found room to comfortably disagree without contradicting. One of them, for example, was expressing her opposition to the President’s support for legalizing marijuana (Lynch noted that the President’s position was likely based on his “personal” experience which she was unable to share). However, in questioning the President’s immigration policy, she was forced to walk a pretty fine tightrope. Lynch ultimately backed up the policy as legally sound and attempted to shift the focus to Homeland Security’s efforts to remove dangerous criminals residing illegally in the U.S. It wasn’t the strongest endorsement of the President’s executive action, but given her audience it likely should not have been.
3) She artfully played politics without playing politics. One of the assurances that Lynch gave was a pledge to work with Congress if confirmed. This is likely welcome news to the GOP who believe that with current Attorney General Eric Holder playing wingman to the President, they have no ally in the Department of Justice. Whether that is actually true is certainly up for debate but in a hearing where Holder was accused of “operating as a politician while using the awesome powers conferred on the Attorney General” Lynch smartly stuck to the law and avoided the politics as much as possible. Where she did get political, it was to differentiate—rather than flat out distance–herself from Holder and Obama and convince the GOP that she was ready to play nice with them. Another smart move.
4) Ideologically, Holder > Lynch. Whether it was simply lip service intended to successfully get through the hearing without causing a stir, or her genuine positions on things remains to be seen. There are still a few points that should raise eyebrows. Lynch has a strong record on dealing with abuses by law enforcement against communities of color, having prosecuted the NYPD officers involved in the Abner Louima case. However, her position on marijuana should be alarming in that in many communities of color across the country, stops for low level offenses like marijuana possession are often used by law enforcement to excuse practices like racial profiling and harassment. Likewise, her pro-death penalty stance is disappointing as it is well documented that not only have there been numerous incidents of wrongfully convicted prisoners being sentenced to death, but that the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to people of color. Also, Lynch has enjoyed a very cozy relationship with Wall St. and the banking industry, in general. Unsurprisingly, this was not a heavy focal point during the hearing as that’s one area where she and the GOP seem to have some of the same friends. One can only hope that after her likely confirmation these positions may soften, but given her efforts to stand on her own these do raise cause for concern.
5) This confirmation may be as much about who she isn’t than who she is. At one point, a Senator flatly asked Lynch “You’re not Eric Holder, are you?’ A prevailing theme throughout the hearing was the GOP’s displeasure with Holder’s tenure related to, undoubtedly, his refusal to denounce the President’s use of executive action as well as Holder’s overarching support for the Commander in Chief. Once her qualifications had been established—which was really not a legitimate question despite whatever foolery other outlets might imply—the rest of the hearing was really about confirming for the GOP that they weren’t getting Holder v.2. In many places, it seemed that the questions weren’t just about Lynch’s positions themselves, but ensuring that those positions different sufficiently from her predecessor.
All in all, Lynch hit the right notes for her audience and given her bulletproof performance yesterday, should have no problem getting confirmed.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights attorney and former Brooklyn, NY prosecutor. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.