WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Saturday he would nominate Loretta E. Lynch, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, to be the next attorney general, paving the way for the first African-American woman to hold the job.
At a ceremony at the White House, Obama called Lynch a highly qualified, tough, fair and independent lawyer who deserved confirmation "without delay."
"She has spent years in the trenches as a prosecutor, aggressively fighting terrorism, financial fraud, cybercrime — all while vigorously defending civil rights," the president said in the Roosevelt Room, where he appeared with Lynch and Eric H. Holder Jr., the current attorney general who has announced his intention to step down.
"Loretta might be the only lawyer in America who battles mobsters and drug lords and terrorists and still has a reputation for being a charming people person," Obama said.
Lynch, 55, a low-profile prosecutor, said that if confirmed she would "wake up every morning with the protection of the American people my first thought, and I will work every day to safeguard our citizens, our liberties, our rights, and this great nation."
Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lynch, who has undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, first rose to prominence for her work prosecuting members of the New York City Police Department for the 1997 case in which a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, was beaten and sexually assaulted with a broom handle. The case became a national symbol of police brutality and was fraught with racial sensitivities, as it involved white police officers accused of assaulting a black man.
On Saturday, Obama called the case "one of her proudest achievements." He also portrayed Lynch as apolitical, noting that she had brought charges against public officials "in both parties" and had twice won unanimous Senate confirmation.
It was not clear how quickly the Senate would move to consider Lynch's current nomination. The White House is deferring to Senate leaders and the Judiciary Committee, but would like her to be confirmed "as quickly as possible," one official said. That would suggest hearings and a vote during the lame-duck congressional session that begins next week, in which Democrats will still control the Senate.
But Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is in line to become majority leader in January following his party's takeover in Tuesday's elections, said Lynch's nomination should be considered "in the new Congress through regular order."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said his top priority in the postelection session is passage of his National Security Agency surveillance bill, which also would have to be considered by his panel.
That makes it possible that Lynch's confirmation vote could wait until early next year, which is when Holder has said he anticipates leaving.
Lynch, a two-time federal prosecutor, has no personal ties to the president and has twice been confirmed by the Senate by acclamation as a U.S. attorney — in 2000 and again in 2010 — suggesting that she might draw at least some level of bipartisan support. Prominent Republicans said they had high hopes she would perform more ably, in their view, than Holder, a confidant of Obama's who is reviled by many of them.
Holder "has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of commitment to enforcing the laws, but more fundamentally, a lack of respect for the constitutional separation of powers," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. If the Senate confirms Lynch, he added, "I look forward to working collaboratively with her to fully enforce our laws and safeguard our national security."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Judiciary Republican who is in line to be committee chairman in the new Congress, said he hoped Lynch would "restore confidence in the attorney general as a politically independent voice for the American people."
But some Republicans have signaled they would seek to make Lynch's nomination a proxy fight over the president's use of executive power, particularly his intention to act unilaterally to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and a vocal critic of Obama's immigration agenda, has said any attorney general nominee must disavow the executive action.