The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Kristen Clarke to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, making her the first woman ― and first Black woman ― to oversee the powerful division created in 1957 as the civil rights movement took hold.
Every Democrat voted to confirm Clarke as assistant U.S. attorney general. Every Republican but one, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, opposed her. The final tally was 51-48. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) did not vote.
Clarke, who is currently the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has a long record of civil rights legal work.
She worked in the Justice Department’s civil rights division more than 20 years ago, where she prosecuted dozens of federal cases relating to voting rights and hate crimes. In 2006, she worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she defended voting rights. In 2011, she was appointed director of the civil rights bureau for the New York attorney general’s office, where she led efforts relating to criminal justice issues and housing discrimination.
Clarke will now oversee the department’s enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws, ranging from issues like justice in policing to the criminal justice system to elections.
Some Republicans tried to frame Clarke as “radical” and “leftist,” claiming that she supports policy proposals like defunding police departments.
“Kristen Clarke is a radical extremist with a laundry list of concerning issues plaguing her nomination that go far beyond her support for defunding the police,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who voted to overturn the presidential election in January based on lies about voter fraud, said earlier this month.
Clarke represents “a far-left radical agenda that’s out of step with the American public and certainly with our respective states,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said last month. He, too, voted to overturn the presidential election in January based on lies about voter fraud.
Interestingly, “radical” and “leftist” are the same terms that these GOP senators used to describe another one of President Joe Biden’s recently confirmed Justice Department officials, civil rights attorney Vanita Gupta. Interestingly, Gupta, like Clarke, happens to be a woman of color. So does Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whom Senate Republicans also attacked for being “radical” during her confirmation process. Interesting.
For her part, Clarke said during her confirmation hearing that she is opposed to stripping police departments of their budgets. Instead, she lent support to the idea of reallocating money within departments to make sure law enforcement officers can do their jobs more safely.
“I do not support defunding the police,” she said in her hearing. “I do support finding strategies to ensure that law enforcement can carry out their jobs more safely and effectively and channeling resources to emotional health treatment and other severely under-resourced areas.”
That didn’t stop every Republican on the Judiciary Committee from opposing Clarke’s nomination, which resulted in a deadlocked vote and required Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to lean on other Senate rules to pull her nomination out of the committee and put it into the Senate floor for a vote.
Schumer said Tuesday that Republicans were trying to “twist her words to make her sound like some radical.” He noted the significance of Clarke’s confirmation vote being held on the same day as the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.
“In a way, as we continue to pursue strong policing reform legislation, it is appropriate that we confirm Kristen Clarke, a proven civil rights leader, to the position of Assistant Attorney General, where she can continue the fight against bigotry in many ways,” Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor. “It is appropriate we do it today.”
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