For Next AG, Obama Picks a Quiet Fighter With a Heavy Punch

Daughter of a librarian, sister to a SEAL. Why colleagues say America can’t ask for better than Loretta Lynch, the president’s pick to succeed Eric Holder.

11.08.14 11:45 AM ET

The woman tapped to become the new attorney general is the younger sister of a Navy SEAL from those days before fame and book deals, when America’s foremost warriors were known only as anonymous “quiet professionals.” 

Loretta Lynch has taken much the same quietly professional approach as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Her father can attest to that, having seen her in action in a Brooklyn courtroom. He speaks of her much as he might of his elder son, the SEAL.

“Low-key, soft voice, but hard-punching attorney,” says Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, a fourth-generation Baptist minister from North Carolina. “She was never a show person but boy she did hit hard.”

Her mother, Lorine Lynch, started life as a farmhand. Loretta Lynch recalled aloud at the swearing-in ceremony for her first stint as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York in 1999 that she once asked her mother why she had labored in the fields. 

“So you wouldn’t have to,” her mother had told her.

The mother had left the fields to become a librarian and her love of literature passed on to her three children. Neighbors in Durham would marvel at the stacks of books little Loretta and her brothers would carry from the public library just down the street.

“Your books are taller than you are!” the father remembers people exclaiming.

Loretta’s uncommon brightness led to an early encounter with what some took to be racism when she took a standardized test at her largely white public school.

“She scored so high they said, ‘This is wrong, you have to retake it,’” the father recalls. “She retook it and scored higher the second time.”

When Loretta was not yet in high school, the family took a trip to Boston and her parents pointed across the Charles River to Harvard University. The father recalls, “She said, ‘That’s where I want to go to college.’”

Another encounter with apparent racism came when she finished at the very top of her class at Durham high school. The authorities suddenly decided there had to be three valedictorians, which resulted in one of them being white. She did indeed go to Harvard, where she majored in English and delighted in reading Chaucer in Old English. She proceeded on to Harvard Law School.

From there, she joined a big Wall Street law firm and earned a six-figure salary. Her father figured that she was set, even if she more than once arrived to conduct a disposition only for the opposing lawyers to assume she must be the court stenographer.

Then she announced she was taking a 75 percent pay cut to become an assistant U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn. She thereby declared herself less interested in making money than in making a difference.

The father came up from North Carolina to see her prosecute a Chinese gang. He returned when she took on the Abner Louima case, which was as momentous in 1999 as the Michael Brown case in Ferguson is now. Louima was a Haitian immigrant who was sodomized by a cop with a wood stick in a precinct bathroom. Four other cops were also arrested in connection with the incident

“Don’t let these defendants push us back to the day when police officers could beat people with impunity, and arrest people for no reason and lie about it to cover it up,” Lynch told the jury during her closing argument that day in 1999.

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The courtroom was completely silent when she was done.

“You could hear a pin drop,” the father recalls. “It was remarkable.”

He adds, “I wouldn’t want her prosecuting me.”

Soon afterward, President Clinton appointed her the U.S. attorney for the district, including Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island. She was replaced by President Bush in mid-2001 and she returned to private practice.

In 2010, President Obama then brought her back for a second stint. She continually impressed her staff with her ability to quickly grasp the essentials of a case as her office wrangled multibillion-dollar settlements from various errant banks while prosecuting a wide range of terrorists, gangsters, and cybercriminals.

In recent weeks, she has overseen cases involving a dual Kazakh-Israeli citizen charged with money laundering, a man arrested for sexually abusing three girls at an Army base, an attorney convicted of a $5 million fraud, mobsters nabbed for a decade-old murder, a banker who faked his own death, a union delegate sentenced for extorting Christmastime tribute, a doctor collared for illegal distribution of Oxycodone, a scamster who engineered an Alaskan gold-mine investment scheme, another scamster charged with facilitating a $6 million food-stamp fraud, five 7-Eleven franchisees who victimized immigrant employees, a fugitive who got in a shootout with U.S. Marshals, a pharmacist charged with smuggling counterfeit medicines via a Costa Rican Internet distributor, a drug dealer convicted of two contract murders, six corporate executives indicted for orchestrating a $500 million offshore fraud, a man convicted of using stolen Social Security numbers to file thousands of false tax returns, and a civil dispute over a dinosaur fossil

She has also pressed ahead with the prosecution of Rep. Michael Grimm, who was reelected this week despite being under indictment for lying under oath and allegedly cooking the books of a now-shuttered health-food restaurant. Grimm is a Republican and he charged during the campaign that the prosecution was politically motivated. That suggestion turns absurd when you consider the long list of corrupt Democrat politicians Lynch has sent to prison.

And nobody can rightly say that she seeks headlines in the way of too many other prosecutors. Her single and singular goal in every case is to pursue justice as determined by the law.

“I think we should want an attorney general who doesn’t seek the limelight, but seeks justice,” says Ken Thompson, who prosecuted the Louima case with her and has gone on to become the Brooklyn district attorney.

Thompson knows her life story and goes on to say, “What she represents is the American dream.”

He believes she would serve as an inspiration and a role model to young people who are beginning their own struggle toward that dream. He described her as a super-smart, fiercely focused, unshakably honest, and supremely fair-minded champion who would make an outstanding attorney general.

“We can’t as a country ask for more than Loretta Lynch,” Thompson says.

According to numerous reports, the departing attorney general, Eric Holder, agreed. He had already named her the head of his advisory council. And he was said to be urging Obama to appoint her as his successor.

On Friday, her 82-year-old father was down in North Carolina, remembering that his daughter sneezed in his face when he was carrying her home from the hospital after she was born. She had since been only a delight.

“Highly inquisitive, highly playful, always cheerful,” he recalls. “She would play with anything. She would make a toy out of anything.”

The father had known tragedy with the death of his son, the former SEAL, when he was just 51. The father now seemed about to know triumph with the nomination of the family’s other quiet professional, 55-year-old Loretta Lynch, as the new attorney general.

In this age of selfies, the president had chosen someone who never seeks the spotlight and lets her work speak for itself. The father said Friday night that he would wait until he actually sees it happen at the official ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Saturday.

“I would be proud, but my late mother said, ‘Don’t count your eggs, son, until they hatch,” he said. “When I see Mr. Obama and my daughter standing beside him, I’ll say something is about to happen.”