When the African American Delta Sigma Theta sorority chapter was established at Harvard College in 1980, its first members included two undergraduates named Loretta E. Lynch and Sharon Malone.
Decades later, Lynch, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, stood at a podium Saturday in the White House with Malone’s husband, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and was nominated by President Obama to be the first African American woman to serve as attorney general.
“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,” Obama said in a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room. “Loretta might be the only lawyer in America who battles mobsters and drug lords and terrorists and still has the reputation for being a charming ‘people person.’ ”
The daughter of a fourth-generation Baptist minister and a school librarian, Lynch was born in Greensboro, N.C., in 1959, the year before black students sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in the city and sparked protests around the nation.
“That’s a little intimidating, being the daughter of a librarian and a minister,” Obama joked at the White House ceremony.
Lynch’s father opened his church to students who were planning anti-segregation boycotts, and he carried her as a toddler to the meetings, “riding on his shoulders,” Lynch said in a speech two years ago. As a young girl, Lynch was also inspired by her grandfather, who was a sharecropper in the 1930s and helped people who got in trouble but had no recourse under the Jim Crow laws.
At Harvard, where Lynch was a sorority sister of Malone, now a Washington obstetrician/gynecologist, she studied hard. But Lynch also had her share of fun, as evidenced by a photograph that U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Timothy Heaphy included in a slide show he presented to Justice officials at a conference two years ago, highlighting where they were “back in the day.”
The photograph of Lynch showed a curly-haired co-ed with thick glasses in a cheerleader’s skirt and sweater in the middle of a cheerleading pyramid.
From Harvard, she went on to Harvard Law School and six years as an associate in the Manhattan law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel. She then joined one of the nation’s premier U.S. attorney’s offices, the Eastern District of New York, as a prosecutor.
In the Brooklyn office — which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island; serves 8 million people; and handles everything from cybercrime to organized crime, public corruption, financial fraud and terrorism — Lynch quickly earned a reputation as a talented investigator and a trial attorney with excellent judgment.
“She is really the soul of grace under pressure,” said Zachary W. Carter, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now the corporation counsel of New York City. “She is just unflappable. I have never seen her outwardly manifest anger or extraordinary frustration. She’s the person who keeps everyone else calm.”
One of Lynch’s proudest achievements was the 1997 prosecution of the New York City police officers who severely beat and sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a broken-off broom handle.
In 1999, President Clinton nominated Lynch to head the Eastern District for the last two years of his presidency. After a stint as a partner at Hogan & Hartson, now Hogan Lovells, Obama chose her in 2010 to again serve as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. Both times, she was confirmed unanimously by the Senate.
Lynch’s office has successfully prosecuted Mafia members and major terrorism cases that included plots to bomb the Federal Reserve Bank and the New York City subway. She was admired for her low-key manner and the way she prosecuted high-profile cases without trying to seek the limelight like some other Justice officials.
“Loretta doesn’t look to make headlines,” Obama said Saturday. “She’s not about splash; she’s about substance.”
Lynch was never part of Obama’s inner circle. But she was close to Holder, who announced in September his plans to step down as soon as a new nominee is confirmed by the Senate. She chairs the Justice Department committee that advises Holder on policy decisions. In that role, she traveled to Washington often, working closely with senior Justice officials.
“There were some big egos and strong-willed people in that group,” said Heaphy, who was also on Holder’s committee. “Loretta was very good at hearing people and giving them an opportunity to state their case and getting the group to come to a consensus. Just as she was in the middle of that Harvard pyramid, she made sure people above and below were supported.”
Former Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division Lanny Breuer worked closely with Lynch on the 2011 Mafia takedown of more than 120 members — the largest of its kind in U.S. history — and the record $1.9 billion settlement with HSBC, the global bank that permitted narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through their subsidiaries.
“There was no U.S. attorney who was easier to forge partnerships with and who we did more work with than Loretta,” said Breuer. “You always felt you could talk through cases with Loretta, and you never felt competitive with her. “
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who is expected to be the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised to give Lynch a “very fair but thorough vetting.” It is unclear if the Obama administration will push to get Lynch confirmed in the lame-duck session of Congress — a move that could spark a battle with Republicans, who oppose the idea.
A White House official said Saturday that the Obama administration wants Lynch to be confirmed “as soon as possible.”
Lynch, who was joined at the White House by her husband, Stephen Hargrove, and two stepchildren Ryan and Kia, said she was “thrilled and so humbled” to be nominated to replace Holder.
“If I have the honor of being confirmed by the Senate, I will wake up every morning with the protection of the American people my first thought,” Lynch said. “And I will work every day to safeguard our citizens, our liberties, our rights and this great nation, which has given so much to me and my family.”
Julie Tate and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.