US & Canada

Why is US attorney general such a controversial job?

Loretta Lynch, a Harvard Law graduate, is preparing to testify before US Congress Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Loretta Lynch, a Harvard Law graduate, has faced opposition in her bid to become attorney general

Loretta Lynch was nominated as US attorney general four months ago and still hasn't been confirmed. The problem doesn't lie with her - but with the job she wants.

The current attorney general, Eric Holder, says he will stay as long as necessary.

That could be a while.

US Senate Republicans are holding up Lynch's confirmation, saying they want first to make progress on an anti-trafficking bill. Democrats won't agree to the bill, however, since it doesn't allow money to be spent on abortions for trafficking victims.

The issues are emotionally fraught - and highly political.

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Image caption Eric Holder's work as attorney general - for better or worse - reflects the policies and priorities of the president

So is the debate about a new attorney general.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Lynch has served as a US attorney in New York and has prosecuted violent gang members and terrorists.

On Tuesday she announced a federal grand jury has indicted a US air force veteran named Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh on charges of trying to provide material support to Islamic State.

She seems ready to take on the job of the nation's top law enforcement officer.

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Image caption President George W Bush and John Ashcroft, who served as attorney general, both spoke about their faith

Yet some are baulking - though not because of her CV.

One of these detractors, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, says voting for her means showing "support for the president's agenda".

Regardless of their own views or personalities, people who serve as attorney general are seen as an extension of the president himself, an "alter ego", as Richard Sherwin, a New York Law School professor who studies media and the law, puts it.

This means the attorney general is subjected to the same admiration - or ridicule - that is usually reserved for the president.

President George W Bush, who talked openly about his Christian faith, nominated John Ashcroft as attorney general.

A member of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, Mr Ashcroft had served as a governor and a US senator. Like the president, he was open about his beliefs - and at times was caricatured.

Mr Ashcroft, like President Bush, combined religion and politics in a way that made people on the left uncomfortable.

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Media captionLoretta Lynch: "I will work every day to safeguard our citizens, our liberties, our rights and this great nation"

In contrast Mr Holder is disliked by those on the right.

He is known for his efforts to take steps to close Guantanamo - and was criticised for his attempt to prosecute terrorism suspects in civilian courts rather than military ones.

"He's the face of the president's policies," says Mr Sherwin.

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Image caption Janet Reno faced questions about a raid on a religious sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993

Those who serve as attorney general, whether on the left or the right, often become polarising figures.

Janet Reno served as attorney general during Bill Clinton's presidency. During her tenure Federal Bureau of Investigation agents carried out an assault on a religious sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993. The operation went badly, and 75 people were killed.

Years later the journalist Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Guardian, called it "Reno's bloodbath".

She and other people who serve as attorney general play larger-than-life roles on the public stage. They're implementing the policies of the executive branch, and their own personalities - and at times their views of the world - are subsumed by debates over politics and power.

This means, as Mr Sherwin says, they're "easy to target".

Chances are Ms Lynch, despite the current opposition to her nomination, will eventually be appointed attorney general. And she'll probably stay in the centre of controversy - just like those who have served in the position before her.

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