Obama to nominate veteran prosecutor Loretta Lynch as attorney general

US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch. -- PHOTO: AFP
US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama plans to nominate veteran New York federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as US attorney general, the White House said on Friday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lynch would be the first African-American woman to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Obama will make the announcement at the White House on Saturday, with Lynch and Holder - who announced his resignation in late September - at his side, spokesman Josh Earnest announced.

Lynch's confirmation potentially could be difficult after Republicans seized control of the Senate earlier this week in a midterm election rout of Obama's Democrats.

But she is not seen as a member of Obama's inner circle - which may help her in the confirmation process.

"Ms Lynch is a strong, independent prosecutor who has twice led one of the most important US attorney's offices in the country," Earnest said in a statement.

The spokesman praised Holder - a close friend of Obama - saying his "tenure has been marked by historic gains in the areas of criminal justice reform and civil rights enforcement."

Lynch, who is in her mid-50s, will be the second African-American attorney general, after Holder. She is in her second stint as the top federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York. She earned Senate confirmation under president Bill Clinton and again in 2010 under Obama.

Lynch oversees federal prosecutions in three New York boroughs - Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island - as well as two suburban counties on Long Island.

Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: "I'm hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the attorney general as a politically independent voice for the American people."

- Harvard grad -

Lynch first came to prominence as a member of the legal team that prosecuted and won convictions in a high-profile case against uniformed New York City police officers who beat and sexually assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima after arresting him.

The North Carolina native has both undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. Before her return to the US Attorney's office in Brooklyn, Lynch was a partner in the New York office of law firm Hogan & Hartson LLP, where she focused her practice on commercial litigation, white-collar criminal defense and corporate compliance issues.

She also served as Special Counsel to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, according to her official biography on the Department of Justice website.

In that capacity, Lynch "conducted a special investigation into allegations of witness tampering and false testimony at the Tribunal," the biography says.

In September, Obama called Holder's departure "bittersweet," but said he empathised with the sacrifices Holder and his family had made as he served in one of the toughest jobs in government.

Holder - who agreed to stay on until his successor is confirmed - is seen as a champion of civil rights by supporters but reviled as an ideologue by Republicans.

He is one of just three original cabinet members still serving in the job they took when Obama assumed power in 2009, alongside Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Only three other US attorneys general have served longer than Holder, whose tenure was notable for significant inroads made in the civil rights arena, including gains in rights and benefits for same-sex couples and reductions in prison sentences for certain drug offences.

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