Kirsten Clarke: Senate confirms Biden’s civil rights nominee despite GOP ‘smear campaign’

Justice Department’s critical civil rights division helmed by Black woman for first time

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 25 May 2021 21:20 BST
Related video: John Cornyn does not appear to realize Kristen Clarke wrote a satirical column

Kristen Clarke will be the first Black woman to lead a key civil rights division at the US Department of Justice, where she will be charged with investigating discriminatory policing and threats to voting rights.

The Senate narrowly confirmed Ms Clarke largely along party lines on the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, whose death has galvanised international momentum for reforms and heightened scrutiny into law enforcement.

Senators approved Ms Clarke’s appointment by a vote of 51-48. Susan Collins was the only Republican senator to support her confirmation.

Her appointment also follows nationwide attempts from Republican lawmakers to restrict ballot access and warnings from federal law enforcement about the rise in racist violence, white supremacism and domestic terror plots.

“We need a champion now as much as ever,” said US Sen Cory Booker.

Ms Clarke – a longtime civil rights advocate, whose career started at the Justice Department – emerged as a frequent critic of Donald Trump’s administration as head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which sued the former president over challenges to voting rights, immigration, the use of force against protesters outside the White House, and changes to the US Census.

Democrats have argued that GOP lawmakers fear her appointment to the Justice Department, along with the recent confirmation of civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta as US Associate Attorney General, will upend American policing and strengthen civil rights and voter protections that Republicans across the US have sought to undo.

The Senate confirmed Ms Gupta by a vote of 50-49 to serve as the No 3 chief at the Justice Department following a deadlocked committee vote.

On Monday, Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono said Republican objections have been part of a “vicious smear campaign” fearing that Ms Clarke will “actually do her job.”

“They are afraid she will enforce our civil rights statutes, challenge discriminatory voting laws, combat systemic racism in policing and protect the LGBTQ community,” she said in remarks on the Senate floor.

For several weeks, GOP lawmakers have sought to undermine her credibility, pointing to her statements surrounding “defund the police” debates, including an op-ed in which she advocated for funding to be re-allocated to social services. The Justice Department’s civil rights division does not dictate police budgets.

Senator Tom Cotton claimed on Tuesday that “a vote for Kristen Clarke is a vote to defund the police.”

Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have called Ms Clarke and Ms Gupta “radicals.”

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said Republicans “set their hair on fire” to oppose Ms Gupta.

“Now we’re back on the floor with Republicans aflame again,” he said.

Democrats – who are supporting sweeping voting rights legislation – pointed to the urgency of Ms Clarke’s confirmation, as state lawmakers pass bills to restrict ballot access and hand more elections oversight to Republican-dominated legislatures, backed by right-wing “dark money” groups drafting the legislation.

“Put Jim Crow 2.0 against a DOJ civil rights division run by Kristen Clarke, and that ‘dark money’ voter suppression operation has a problem,” Senator Whitehouse said. “These two women scare the daylights out of this ‘dark money’ operations behind Republican voter suppression.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights hailed Ms Clarke’s confirmation as “an historic, important moment for our nation.”

“With Clarke’s confirmation, DOJ is in superb hands as it continues to restore its role as chief enforcer of our civil rights,” the group said.

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