Senate panel deadlocks over Biden pick to lead DOJ civil rights division

Senate panel deadlocks over Biden pick to lead DOJ civil rights division
© Greg Nash

The Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked Thursday on whether to advance President BidenJoe BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics MORE's pick to lead the Department of Justice's (DOJ) civil rights division, leaving it up to Senate leadership to send her confirmation to the floor for a vote.

The committee voted 11-11 along party lines on Kristen ClarkeKristen ClarkeDOJ settles with Pennsylvania city over language barriers to Spanish-speaking residents Justice faces pressure for action on civil rights post-Trump Senate confirms Clarke as first Black woman to lead DOJ civil rights MORE's nomination, with Republican committee members saying she is too radical and too critical of police to be in charge of the DOJ wing that's tasked with leading investigations into local police departments and suing states over restrictive voting laws.

The vote on Thursday echoed the contentious confirmation process for Vanita Gupta, who was approved in a narrow 51-49 Senate floor vote last month for the No. 3 position in the Justice Department.


Gupta's confirmation also advanced to the Senate floor following a tied committee vote. Just one Republican, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHundreds in West Virginia protest Manchin's opposition to voting rights legislation How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress Senate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court MORE (Alaska), voted in favor of her on the floor.

Both Gupta and Clarke have faced stiff opposition from Senate Republicans and conservative groups who have sought to paint them as leftist extremists bent on abolishing the police, despite law enforcement groups backing both nominations.

"Kristen Clarke and Vanita Gupta, two nominees who have been before this committee in the past month, are two of the most radical nominees that have ever been put forward to any position in the federal government," Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: Top admiral shoots back at criticism of 'woke' military | Military guns go missing | New White House strategy to battle domestic extremism Top admiral shoots back at criticism of 'woke' military: 'We are not weak' Biden tries to erase Trump's 'America First' on world stage MORE (R-Texas) said during a committee hearing before Thursday's vote. "It speaks volumes that President Biden is willing to nominate two radicals to be senior officials at the Department of Justice and it speaks volumes that Senate Democrats are willing to rubber-stamp those choices."

Democrats have responded to the attacks with accusations that Republicans are seeking to smear the two veteran civil rights lawyers in an effort to stymie the Biden administration from cracking down on police misconduct and voting restrictions being implemented at the state level across the country.

"The only reason to oppose her is the fear that she is going to be a vigorous and honest enforcer as she has been throughout her career," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).


Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress MORE (D-N.Y.) also spoke in support of Clarke's nomination and criticized the GOP attacks against her.

"The political right seems to relish in trying to score political points by connecting every Justice Department nominee — many of whom happen to be women of color — to hot-button partisan issues, whether or not they have any relevance," Schumer said Thursday on the Senate floor.

"Just like Ms. Vanita Gupta — who I’m proud to say is now the associate attorney general — Ms. Clarke was treated by the minority on the Judiciary Committee like some hair-raising radical, despite her record, her qualifications, and her support from all sides," he added.

Clarke, who would be the first Black woman to lead the DOJ's civil rights wing, began her legal career as a prosecutor in the division after graduating from Columbia Law School in 2000.

She went on to other civil rights positions in government and nonprofits, including a stint at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. Since 2015, she's served as the president and executive director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In that capacity, she was an outspoken critic of the Trump administration and its appointment of right-wing federal judges and government lawyers.

Republicans zeroed in on those criticisms and her past writings, including a Newsweek op-ed published last year with the headline "I Prosecuted Police Killings. Defund the Police—But Be Strategic."

In the column, Clarke advocated for diverting some funds from police programs toward social workers, schools and mental health assistance, arguing that it would improve public safety and lessen civil rights violations against Black communities.

During her confirmation hearing last month, she pushed back against suggestions that she wanted to defund or abolish police departments.

“I do not support the defunding of the police,” Clarke 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."

— Jordain Carney contributed to this story, which was updated at 12:31 p.m.