In a talk with the five political caucuses of the Penn Political Union (PPU), former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch discussed topics from her career path to her thoughts on law enforcement reform and her most memorable cases.
Lynch, the first female African American attorney general and former head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, was the inaugural guest speaker of PPU’s 2021-22 series of debates and discussions sponsored by the Andrea Mitchell Center.
Interviewer Frank Hong, speaker of the PPU, started off the evening asking Lynch about her inspiration to enter the field of law. She talked about her grandfather, a sharecropper in rural North Carolina in the 1930s who had a strong sense of justice and fairness, even though the law did not often protect Black people in his community. Those senses trickled into her interest in the law.
“I view the law as a tool to use to craft a better society,” she said.
Asked which cases stand out to her in her career, she noted the corruption charges against FIFA officials during her time as U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. The case earned her a global reputation and led to increased transparency in the world’s most powerful soccer governing organization.
“What was really galling to me was the money that was set aside in developing countries to support youth programs was just being stolen left and right,” she said. “That was a case that meant a lot to me because it showed how corruption really does affect more than just the institution.”
Another case that came to define her, on a more personal level, was when, as attorney general she sued her home state of North Carolina, the governor, and the University of North Carolina system over the law that restricted bathroom access based on a person’s biological sex. For her, its wording harkened back to the Jim Crow laws of restricting bathrooms and water fountains by race, setting up a system in which people didn’t have the same rights as others, and leading down a dangerous path.
“This particular bill was heading in that direction,” she said. “It was not only morally abhorrent, but it was against the law.”
She said the murder of George Floyd has prompted a discussion of not just the relationship between citizens and law enforcement, but the relationship between citizens and society, raising questions of who should be protected, and how to define what has value.
The conversation then moved to the chairs of three of the PPU’s five caucuses—the Progressive, Centrist, and Conservative caucuses—who read questions the audience had submitted online in advance of the event. The discussion was later opened to participants in the room at Perry World House.
One audience question asked her thoughts on the differences between local and federal jurisdiction. Lynch pointed to her lawsuit against the City of Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown. The city, she said, was set up to deploy the police to collect fees, mostly from Black and brown citizens.
“Tickets were double, triple, quadruple what they should be, and it was unconstitutional,” she said. Local prosecutors need to feel empowered to do the hard work of taking on such cases on their own turf, she said.
Society’s eyes have been opened in recent years to the long-term, historical problems in America of inequality and systemic racism, Lynch said. She told the students in the audience that now is their time to take on these big questions themselves, in their future careers and personal lives.
“We’re at an inflection point in our society,” she said. “This is a great time for all of you to pick up that banner and decide what kind of country and what kind of society you want to have.”
After the public talk, about 20 students met with Lynch for about 45 minutes in a more intimate and informal setting.
PPU is an undergraduate organization that features parliamentary-style deliberation on urgent contemporary issues. To represent a wide spectrum of political opinion, students affiliate with five-member political parties: Libertarian, Conservative, Centrist, Liberal, and Progressive. The goal of PPU, in both debates and less formal discussions, is to fully represent political diversity.
The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy was founded through a donation from Andrea Mitchell in 2017. This donation transformed what had been Penn’s Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism, enabling the mission of that organization to dramatically expand as well as to receive permanent support.