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Would Loretta Lynch echo Holder on civil rights?

By Jeffrey Toobin
updated 3:57 PM EST, Fri November 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeffrey Toobin, who worked with Loretta Lynch, says she thrived in chaotic U.S. court in Brooklyn
  • She showed strength there more as administrator than courtroom performer, Toobin says
  • He asks if she will keep Eric Holder's voting rights' emphasis if tapped as attorney general
  • Toobin: And will she continue Holder's efforts on reducing drug penalties?

Editor's note: Jeffrey Toobin is CNN senior legal analyst and author of "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- New junior federal prosecutors literally started in the basement of the U.S. courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. I moved into my subterranean office in January 1990. A few weeks later, Loretta Lynch moved into her new digs down the hall. We were assistant U.S. attorneys in the Eastern District of New York, which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island.

The work of this U.S. attorney's office is unglamorous, especially for new hires. Our jurisdiction included John F. International Kennedy Airport in Queens, so our introductory cases often involved low-level drug smuggling, especially the "swallowers" who ingested condoms full of cocaine or heroin. Lynch thrived in that chaotic environment.

Jeffrey Toobin
Jeffrey Toobin

And now, two-plus decades later, it looks like she will be the next attorney general of the United States.

She has been U.S. attorney twice in the courthouse where she came up -- first under President Bill Clinton and currently under President Barack Obama. She is not a well-known figure, even in New York. She is a workhorse, not a show horse, and she has flourished doing the hard, ordinary work of federal prosecution -- narcotics cases, organized crime (always big in Brooklyn), public corruption (ditto) and civil rights violations.

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Lynch has showed her strengths more as an administrator than as a courtroom performer. She always had good relations with the U.S. attorney's "clients" -- the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies. Still, against heavy pressure from the New York police, she led a full investigation and prosecution of the horrible assault of Abner Louima by NYPD officers in 1997.

She is a tough and successful New Yorker, but she has also never forgotten her North Carolina roots. There is a Southern graciousness about her (and her accent), and it will certainly be on display in any confirmation hearings.

Two major questions loom over her prospective tenure as attorney general. First, will she continue the emphasis on voting rights that Eric Holder displayed? The answer is almost certainly yes. Like Holder, she comes from the generation after the civil rights movement, but it is part of her DNA, and that will come through in her priorities.

The more interesting question involves drugs. Holder moved carefully but steadily to reduce federal prosecutions of low-level narcotics offenses, especially marijuana. In addition, he started plans to lower the sentences of federal inmates who were convicted under those laws. Will Lynch continue these efforts?

She has no public track record on these policy issues, though she has aggressively prosecuted narcotics offenders in Brooklyn. This area offers a possible route for cooperation with some Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul, who were sympathetic to Holder on this issue.

In any event, one verdict is clear: Lynch has come a long way from that basement we shared.

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