WASHINGTON — -- As one of the longest-serving attorneys general in U.S. history prepares to leave office, President Obama made it clear today that the woman he's nominated to be Eric Holder's successor will be expected to pick up right where he left off on civil rights.
"Throughout her 30-year career she has distinguished herself as tough, as fair, an independent lawyer who has twice headed one of the most prominent U.S. attorney's offices in the country," the president said at the nomination ceremony for Loretta Lynch, who is currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
"She has spent years in the trenches as a prosecutor aggressively fighting terrorism, financial fraud, cybercrime -- all while vigorously defending civil rights," Obama said.
Flanked by Holder and Lynch, the president repeated that civil rights theme throughout her introduction in the White House. Obama pointed out she was born in Greensboro, N.C., a year before the famous sit-in protest by four black students at a "whites-only" lunch counter in 1960.
As a child, Lynch would "ride on the shoulders" of her Baptist minister father as he helped organize desegregation activists, the president said. Her grandfather, Obama said, was a sharecropper who had helped poor blacks find legal help in the Jim Crow south of the 1930s.
If confirmed by the Senate, Lynch would become the first black woman to hold the office -- succeeding the first black man.
"Loretta has spent her entire life fighting for fair and equal justice that is the foundation of our democracy," Obama continued, ranking off achievements including the prosecution of suspected terrorists, mob and gang members, and a high-profile case of police brutality against a Haitian immigrant in 1997.
Today was also Lynch's first public speaking appearance since news of her nomination broke on Friday.
"No one gets to this place, this room, this podium, this moment, by themselves," she said, thanking her family, colleagues, and Holder himself for "pushing this department to live up to its name."
"The Department of Justice is the only cabinet department named for an ideal," she said. "And this is actually appropriate, for our work is both aspirational and grounded in gritty reality. It's both ennobling and profoundly challenging. Today I stand before you so thrilled, and frankly so humbled, to have the opportunity to lead this group of wonderful people who work all day and well into the night to make that ideal a manifest reality."
As a federal prosecutor Lynch has survived two prior confirmations before Congress, once during the Clinton administration and again after President Obama took office. But her fate in the the Senate is less than certain: Eric Holder was a constant target of conservatives during his tenure, partially for what they viewed as overreach of civil rights activism.
But Lynch is not a member of Obama's inner circle and that distance -- combined with a low-profile history -- could aid her in the process.
The White House has said it would defer to lawmakers on when those confirmation hearings would begin. With Republicans now having won back control of Senate during last Tuesday's elections it may come before the New Year, when majority power is officially handed over from the Democrats.