Senate

Biden’s DOJ civil rights nominee faces sharp GOP criticism

Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, faced attacks from Senate Republicans on Wednesday amid growing national tensions over police killings of Black people and voting rights.

Clarke, an alum of the division and current president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, would be the first Black woman to head the influential wing of the Justice Department.

At a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans criticized Clarke’s advocacy as a civil rights leader on policing and voting rights.

“As I look to your record, I see the record of someone who has spent a career as a partisan advocate,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Cruz and other conservatives hammered her on an op-ed that she wrote in Newsweek last year following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, that included the progressive talking point “defund the police.”

Clarke denied that she believed in defunding the police and said that her column was intended to advocate for investing in initiatives that would make law enforcement’s job easier while promoting public safety.

“I do not support the defunding of the police,” she said. “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 I think is one path forward.”

As head of the civil rights division, Clarke would lead the Biden administration’s law enforcement efforts against police misconduct and voter suppression.

The hearing came as the national conversation on police brutality is centered in Minnesota, where former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is facing murder charges for Floyd’s death in May.

On Sunday, Daunte Wright — a 20-year-old Black man — was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb roughly 10 miles from where Chauvin is standing trial.

Wright’s death inflamed tensions in the city, prompting protests, unrest and the mobilization of the Minnesota National Guard. 

Additionally, Clarke’s nomination is being considered as Republican-led state legislatures around the country are taking up measures to restrict ballot access.

Clarke is the second woman of color nominated to a high-ranking Justice Department post under the Biden administration who has faced stiff opposition from Senate Republicans.

Last month, the Judiciary Committee deadlocked in a panel vote to advance the nomination of Vanita Gupta to serve in the agency’s No. 3 post. Gupta, who previously led the Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration, faced similar questioning and criticism from Senate Republicans in what Democrats called a concerted smear campaign.

Democrats and advocates are hoping that if Clarke is confirmed, she will revive the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement efforts that they believe fell dormant under the Trump administration. That includes the use of consent decrees to ensure oversight of police departments accused of systemic misconduct.

“What is truly impressive about Kristen Clarke is the wide-spread and universal support she has garnered from the law enforcement community as she worked with these organizations to build trust between them and the communities they serve,” Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, wrote to the judiciary panel in endorsing her nomination. 

“We are confident that Ms. Clarke is the ideal person at this time to lead the Civil Rights Division,” the letter reads.

Clarke boasts numerous other endorsements from outside organizations, including prominent civil rights groups and national police associations. 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J), to close the hearing, refuted the attacks lobbed by GOP members of the committee as “outrageous lies.”

“People are trying to say you’re wrong for this job when, dear God, you are what we need in the civil rights division of the Justice Department,” Booker said. 

“If you’re wrong,” the New Jersey senator continued, “then what are we saying to all Americans, but in particular to that Black girl that is somewhere in America right now who feels amidst a nation that still has not shed the ugly cloak of bigotry and hate.”

Tags civil rights Cory Booker Joe Biden Joyce Beatty Kristen Clarke police reform Ted Cruz voting rights

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