Senate Confirms Biden’s Pick to Head DOJ’s Civil Rights Division
(Bloomberg) -- The Senate voted narrowly to confirm Kristen Clarke, President Joe Biden’s pick to run the Justice Department’s civil rights division, a key position in coming battles over revamping police practices, enforcing voting rights and preventing violence against minorities.
The 51-48 vote on Tuesday makes Clarke a top member of Attorney General Merrick Garland’s leadership team as he seeks to reshape the Justice Department and undo actions taken under former President Donald Trump.
Garland has indicated the civil rights division will make “pattern or practice” investigations into police departments accused of bias and wrongdoing a high priority after they were largely abandoned during the Trump administration.
Clarke, who has served as president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is the first woman of color to be confirmed by the Senate to lead the civil rights division.
“It is appropriate that we do it today,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor, citing the first anniversary of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a White police officer in Minneapolis.
But Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said that Clarke “proudly fans the flames of division” by “attacking police and calling everybody a racist.”
The close vote for Clarke reflects the partisan divisions over Biden’s picks for top Justice Department positions and the change in direction they promise, although Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine crossed party lines to support the nomination.
Last month, Republicans attempted to stop the nomination of Vanita Gupta, another woman of color, to the department’s No. 3 leadership position. Cotton said Tuesday that he was “genuinely astonished but Joe Biden has somehow found a nominee more radical than Ms. Gupta.”
Schumer had to take the rare step of bringing discharge petitions to the chamber’s floor to advance the nominations of Clarke and Gupta, who was confirmed 51-49 in April.
Clarke and Gupta join Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco as a powerhouse trio of female law enforcement veterans in senior positions in the Justice Department, which had come under criticism for bending to the political will of Trump.
Although Biden and Garland have pledged the president won’t interfere in Justice Department decisions on prosecutions, that doesn’t preclude the department’s customary shift in emphasis to reflect a new president’s priorities.
Clarke, who previously ran the civil rights bureau at New York’s attorney general’s office, will be responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex or disabilities and ensuring that voting laws don’t violate constitutional rights.
She takes over the civil rights division at a critical time and amid a national debate over police policies following months of protests in the aftermath of the killing of Floyd. A White former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, was found guilty in April of killing Floyd.
Garland has opened investigations into the police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, where police shot and killed a Black woman, Breonna Taylor, in her home in March 2020. Other police shootings of Black citizens continue to spark debate and investigations.
The Justice Department also is under pressure to weigh in against new laws in Republican-controlled states that critics say restrict voting rights, particularly for minorities.
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