04.23.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee On the Nomination of Loretta Lynch to be the Attorney General of the United States

For almost two months, I have been returning to the Senate floor to urge the Majority Leader to schedule the confirmation vote for our next Attorney General.  Yesterday afternoon we were finally able to get an agreement that was long overdue.  But this morning we are not voting to confirm Loretta Lynch to be the next Attorney General of the United States.  Instead, this morning the Senate is voting on whether to invoke cloture with regard to this top law enforcement position.  For those not familiar with the rules of the Senate, “cloture” is the Rule that allows this chamber to vote to end a filibuster.  The fact that Senate Republicans are requiring a cloture vote on her nomination acknowledges what we have known all along – Republicans have been engaged in an unprecedented filibuster of this nomination.   

When we do vote to confirm Loretta Lynch this afternoon, she will be the first African American woman to serve as Attorney General.  She is an historic nominee, but it is Senate Republicans who are making history and for all the wrong reasons.  Of the 82 Attorneys General in our Nation’s history, not a single one had to overcome a cloture vote – not one.

President Obama first announced Ms. Lynch’s nomination more than five months ago.  At the time, Senate Democrats acceded to the request of Senate Republicans not to move her nomination during the lame duck period.  Republicans promised that she would be treated fairly.  Last fall, the incoming Majority Leader promised that “Ms. Lynch will receive fair consideration by the Senate.  And her nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order.” But Ms. Lynch has not been treated fairly. 

Her nomination has been pending on the Senate floor awaiting confirmation for 56 days.  She has waited more than twice as long on the Senate floor to receive a confirmation vote than all of the past seven Attorneys General combined:  Richard Thornburgh, one day; William Barr, five days; Janet Reno, one day; John Ashcroft, two days, Alberto Gonzales, eight days; Michael Mukasey, two days; and Eric Holder, five days.  I have said it repeatedly, but it bears repeating again:  this historic delay is an embarrassment for the United States Senate. 

As the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Ms. Lynch has brought terrorists and cyber-criminals to justice, obtained convictions against corrupt public officials from both political parties, and fought tirelessly against violent crime and financial fraud.  Ms. Lynch has protected the rights of victims, and has a proven record prosecuting human traffickers and protecting children.  I am glad that yesterday, the Senate was finally able to overcome an impasse on trafficking legislation that Republicans caused by injecting partisan politics into the debate.  That Republican leaders tied a vote on Ms. Lynch’s confirmation to this legislation never made sense, especially given her strong record in this area.  In a recent article, the Guardian rightly pointed out that the Republican Leadership’s use of her nomination as a negotiating chip was “painfully wrongheaded – tantamount to holding the sheriff back until crime goes away.”  I could not agree more.

We all know that Loretta Lynch is eminently qualified to be our next Attorney General.  She should not have been delayed for so many months by the Senate majority.  And we should not be forced to vote to cut off debate on this nomination, especially when no other Attorney General nominee has ever needed such a vote.  This is the complete opposite of the “fair treatment” that Senate Republicans promised last November.  After this extended delay, I can only hope that Senate Republicans will show her more respect as Attorney General of the United States than she has received as a nominee.  She deserves our respect and our gratitude for being willing to continue to serve our Nation.

Ms. Lynch’s story is one of perseverance, grace, and grit, and I believe this process will only make her stronger.  Born and raised in North Carolina, Loretta Lynch is the daughter of a fourth-generation Baptist preacher and a school librarian.  Her proud mother and father instilled in her the American values of fairness and equality, even when those around them were not living up to those values.  Ms. Lynch recalls riding on her father’s shoulders to their church where students organized peaceful protests against racial segregation.  The freedom songs and the church music that went hand in hand with those protests undoubtedly made up the soundtrack of her childhood.  As Attorney General I am sure she will draw upon those childhood experiences and the struggle of her grandparents and great grandparents when addressing the current protests over too many young lives lost in our streets. 

The Judiciary Committee was honored to have her father, the Reverend Lorenzo Lynch, with us on both days of her hearing in January and also at the Committee markup when her nomination was favorably reported with bipartisan support.  And he is here in the Senate gallery today.  It is clear this undoubtedly proud father instilled in his daughter the grace and resilience that she has shown over these past six months. 

Throughout Loretta Lynch’s life, those who encountered her intelligence and tenacity have not always been prepared to accept her and her impressive accomplishments.  But at every point, the content of her character has shone through and led her to even greater heights.

In elementary school, administrators did not believe that Loretta Lynch could score as high has she did on a standardized test.  They demanded that she retake the test, and she scored even higher the second time.  In high school she rose to the very top of her class, but had to share the title of valedictorian with two other students, one of whom was white, because school administrators feared an African American valedictorian was too controversial.  This did not hold her back.  She kept going forward.  She went on to graduate with honors from Harvard College and then earned her law degree from Harvard Law School.

This has been the story of Loretta Lynch’s life.  While some are not ready to embrace her distinction, she marches forward with grace to prove that she is even stronger and more qualified than her detractors can imagine.  She has dedicated the majority of her remarkable career to public service and we are fortunate as a Nation that she wants to continue to serve.

Ms. Lynch’s record of excellence makes me confident that she will be able to lead the Justice Department through some of the complex challenges that it faces today.  One issue the outgoing Attorney General prioritized was the protection of Americans’ right to vote.  After the Supreme Court’s disastrous ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, Republican governors and state legislatures exploited the decision and implemented sweeping voter suppression laws that disproportionately affect African Americans and other minorities.  Ms. Lynch will have to continue the commitment to fighting voting rights for all Americans.

At a time of severe budget cuts for too many vital programs that help victims and support public safety, something must be done about the massive financial burden that is the Bureau of Prisons. One third of DOJ’s budget goes to BOP.  This imbalance has largely been driven by our reliance on drug mandatory minimum sentences, which do not make us safer but are costing us plenty.  These sentences explain why the United States has the largest prison population in the world.  We must work together on more thoughtful solutions to address our mass incarceration problem.

Few issues affect communities and families as intimately as addiction.  Vermont, like many parts of the country, has seen a recent surge in the abuse of heroin and other opioids.  The Department must work with states to find solutions to support communities struggling with heroin and other opioids, and help them break the cycle of addiction. 

The Attorney General will also be called upon to build on the sometimes strained relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, which has been exacerbated by the recent tragic events in Ferguson, New York, and South Carolina.  Restoring that trust will be as great a responsibility as she will have while in office. 

Nor are these issues of trust limited to local law enforcement.  Just the other day, a Washington Post article detailed the fact that the Justice Department and the FBI acknowledged numerous instances of flawed testimony by FBI examiners over a two-decade period in connection with hair analysis evidence.  This included dozens of cases involving defendants who were sentenced to death row.  This troubling revelation means that the FBI must conduct a comprehensive analysis to prevent future breakdowns such as this.

The Justice Department must also keep up with the rapid development of technology.  We must stay ahead of the curve to prevent and fight threats to cybersecurity and data privacy.  The growing threat of cybercrime is very real but so is the specter of unchecked government intrusion into our private lives – particularly dragnet surveillance programs directed at American citizens.  The intelligence community faces a critical deadline this June when three sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are set to expire.  We must protect our national security and our civil liberties.  We must work together to reform our Nation’s surveillance laws so we can achieve both goals and restore the public’s trust. 

When President Obama announced his intent to nominate Ms. Lynch last November, I had the privilege of attending the White House ceremony.  At that event, Ms. Lynch noted with admiration that “the Department of Justice is the only cabinet department named for an ideal.”  I believe that when Loretta Lynch in sworn in as our next Attorney General, she will work tirelessly to make that ideal a reality for all Americans.

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