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5 Months Later, Senate Confirms Loretta Lynch As Attorney General


There is a new attorney general in town. The Senate took more than five months to get to today's confirmation of Loretta Lynch as the nation's top law enforcement officer. Lawmakers voted 56 to 43 to usher in this new era at the Justice Department. Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, put it this way.


SENATOR DICK DURBIN: This is a milestone in the history of the United States - the first African-American woman to become attorney general of this country.

BLOCK: NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following the confirmation saga, and she joins me now to talk about Loretta Lynch's priorities. Welcome, Carrie.


BLOCK: Loretta Lynch has been a federal prosecutor in New York for more than 16 years. What does her record tell us about what is important to her, what her priorities might be?

JOHNSON: First, Melissa, there's an irony here - part of what held up her nomination for so many months was a fight in the Senate over the human trafficking bill, a bill to help victims of human trafficking. Democrats say they didn't read the text of the bill, and it got caught up in a firestorm over abortion funding. Ultimately, that compromise was worked out this week, but Loretta Lynch has spent a lot of her career in Brooklyn indicting sex traffickers and locking them up, Melissa, for 10 or 20 years or more. I'm told she's going to continue to make that work a priority when she's formally sworn in as attorney general. That could happen as early as Monday.

BLOCK: Let's talk about another area. The Justice Department also plays a very big role, often behind the scenes, in national security issues. How would you expect Loretta Lynch to handle debates over surveillance - government surveillance - the prison at Guantanamo Bay?

JOHNSON: That surveillance issue is going to be hot and heavy almost immediately when Loretta Lynch takes office. That's because three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire June 1. Congress has only a matter of weeks to decide whether to reauthorize those provisions or to let them die on the vine. The former attorney general, Michael Mukasey - the last AG in the Bush years - told me he spent loads of time on the Hill lobbying on those issues. Loretta Lynch is likely to do the same. There's also this issue, Melissa, of the clock ticking down on the Obama presidency and on his desire to close the prison at Guantanamo. Loretta Lynch is likely to be in the room giving legal advice on that, too.

BLOCK: Well, one of the top priorities of the outgoing attorney general, Eric Holder, has been pushing for lighter sentences for many nonviolent drug criminals. He's been urging prosecutors to be smart on crime. What is his successor, Loretta Lynch's, position on that?

JOHNSON: Well, Loretta Lynch largely shares Eric Holder's views on this topic, and frankly, a lot of this comes top-down from president Obama himself, so that's unlikely to change. The administration, though, still needs Congress to pass new laws that would dial back prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. There are some supporters - Rand Paul, a Republican of Kentucky, Patrick Leahy - Democrat of Vermont - but it's not clear whether some Republican senators in the mainstream and some law and order Democrats are going to get on board. And action really needs to happen this year if it's going to happen because next year is the election, and folks are not likely to move then.

BLOCK: So we've been talking about areas of continuity at justice. What about places where Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder might diverge?

JOHNSON: Lynch, in her confirmation hearings, Melissa, was much less welcoming of efforts at the state level to legalize marijuana, either for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes. She's also really looking with disfavor on campaigns to get the Obama administration to reclassify that drug under the law as a substance that's less dangerous. She's also likely - more likely than Eric Holder at least - to spend more time talking about cybercrime. That's because she worked in Brooklyn where she prosecuted many cyber scams and saw the terrible effects on financial institutions.

BLOCK: OK. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome

BLOCK: We were talking about today's confirmation of Loretta Lynch as the new U.S. attorney general. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.