The Obama administration’s decision to sue North Carolina for transgender rights is the latest example of the aggressive approach Loretta Lynch has taken as attorney general in her first year in office.
The first black woman to head the Department of Justice has earned both fans and critics since taking over for Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderOregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps Christie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group Democrats look to state courts as redistricting battle heats up MORE, her embattled predecessor, but neither side would argue she’s been meek.
Lynch began her tenure by going after the executives of the international soccer association on charges of corruption.
In an unprecedented move, the department later backed groups suing the federal Election Assistance Commission over its controversial decision to let states like Arizona enforce laws requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote. EAC is an agency DOJ is typically expected to defend.
The department also brought federal hate crime charges against the Charleston, N.C. church shooting suspect Dylann Roof, for whom Lynch is now seeking the death penalty.
And then there was the lawsuit filed against North Carolina over its law requiring that people use the public bathroom matching their gender at birth, not the gender they identify with. The DoJ suit put the Obama administration at the forefront of a new, controversial issue on civil rights, provoking a fierce backlash from many states.
“Obviously her response to the North Carolina’s bathroom bill has been one that has been remarkably aggressive,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“I think she could have gone about that in a quieter or more subtle way,” he said. “It seems like something not only from a policy perspective that offended her, but from a personal perspective as well. She found it very offensive and as a result had no interest in doing this in a play nice sort of way.”
Lynch was quick to deem the law discriminatory.
“What we must not do – what we must never do – is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control and deny what makes them human,” Lynch said when she announced the lawsuit on May 9. “This is why none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not, or invents a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.”
Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill that Lynch is following in Holder’s footsteps — but in some cases going beyond him.
“I think that she has shown in an understated way, but with loud ramifications that she is no one that shrinks from the legacy of a Robert Kennedy or Eric Holder,” he said.
If the Lynch era ends at DoJ with a change in administrations after the election, Sharpton argues that Lynch will be remembered for showing how aggressive the department can be when standing up for civil rights.
“They’ll be discussing the Lynch tenure for many years to come even though she didn’t have many years to serve,” he said.
Critics say Lynch is abusing her powers as the nation’s top cop.
“I would characterize her as Eric Holder 2.0,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who served as counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the DOJ from 2001 to 2005. “Just like Holder she allows her ideology to blind the nonpartisan pursuit of justice.”
von Spakovsky said DOJ’s action against North Carolina and its subsequent guidance for public schools on transgender bathroom use, is just the latest example of agency overreach.
“The Justice Department doesn’t have the ability to rewrite the laws,” he said. “They are supposed to enforce the laws passed by Congress.”
DOJ Spokesman Kevin Lewis would not respond to criticisms that Lynch has abused her power or been “too aggressive” when it comes to North Carolina.
“It’s our view based on the Constitution and civil rights law that they are in violation of that law,” he said. “We let them know they were in violation. They disagree. That’s what the courts are for.”
In her confirmation hearings, Lynch said her top four priorities would be police reform and improving relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, national security, cyber security and human trafficking.
LGBT rights, however, have taken center stage.
“Civil rights are very important to her and I think that’s why she thinks she’s here – to protect the vulnerable,” Lewis said.