The U.S. Senate on Wednesday narrowly voted to confirm Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general for the Department of Justice, the No. 3 position at an agency that is expected to take more federal action on issues including domestic extremism and police brutality.
The Senate, which Democrats narrowly control, voted 51-49 to confirm Gupta, who will be the first woman of color and civil rights attorney to serve in the job. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the lone Republican to vote for Gupta.
Several high-profile Republicans and conservative groups opposed Gupta’s nomination, pointing to previous comments she made as president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights lobbying outfit. Gupta served as the chief civil rights prosecutor under former President Barack Obama from October 2014 to January 2017.
Gupta has defended her record. Law enforcement organizations — including the National Sheriffs’ Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police — supported her nomination, helping deflate any widespread effort to defeat her nomination. Last month, Gupta told senators that she did not support defunding police departments.
President Joe Biden in January announced his nomination of Merrick Garland, along with Gupta and other women to top DOJ posts. The Senate voted 98-2 on Tuesday to confirm Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position at the agency. The Senate’s Judiciary Committee met last week with Kristen Clarke, who Biden tapped to be the assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Clarke, who is the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has faced similar criticism from Republicans.
The Republican opposition to the nominations of Gupta and Clarke, both women of color, has spotlighted the political reaction to other Biden nominees who are people of color. In March, Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget amid sustained criticism over old tweets. She had been poised to become the first woman of color and first South Asian American to head the agency. That position remains unfilled.
In breaking rank with Republicans, Murkowski acknowledged during Senate floor remarks the challenges to Gupta’s confirmation.
“She has been elevated with very strong rhetorical words in favor and equally words of condemnation,” Murkowski said. “I asked her point blank, ‘Why do you want this? Is this worth it?’ Because this has been clearly very hard on her as a nominee. And she paused and reflected a moment, and just spoke to how she feels called to serve in a very personal way that I thought was impactful.”
Murkowski added that while she found some prior statements from Gupta “troubling and concerning,” the senator would give her the benefit of the doubt because Gupta had demonstrated to be “deeply committed” to matters of justice. Murkowski said the two spoke about justice issues in Alaska, including “the real tragedy that we face when it comes to women, primarily our Native women, who experience rates of domestic violence and sexual assault that are shocking, disturbing and wrong.”
“And despite all that we have as a state — the resources that we have, the opportunities that we have — we have not been able to turn the corner, as we have needed to in confronting what I believe is a true scourge,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski said as she spoke to Gupta about these issues, “I felt that I was speaking to a woman who had not only committed a professional life to try to get to the base of these injustices, to try to not just direct a little bit of money, put a program in place and walk away and call it a day, but to truly try to make a difference.”
The disproportionate killings of Black and Brown people by police is expected to be a key issue for the Justice Department. Hours before Gupta’s confirmation, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into whether police in Minneapolis engage in “unconstitutional or unlawful policing.” That comes one day after a jury convicted Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolice police officer, for the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.
On Tuesday, Biden referenced the nominations of Gupta and Clarke in addressing the nation after the verdict. Biden described them as “eminently qualified, highly respected lawyers” who have fought to advance “racial equity and justice.”
“Vanita and Kristen have the experience and the skill necessary to advance our administration’s priorities to root out unconstitutional policing and reform our criminal justice system, and they deserve to be confirmed,” he said.
Gupta also joins a Justice Department that has been investigating suspects tied to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a domestic terrorist event that has been linked to white supremacy. Garland said recently that his department would invest resources into combating “domestic violent extremists.”
Among Gupta’s roles in the Obama administration was acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. She is credited with helping to challenge a bill in North Carolina that would have banned transgender people from using bathrooms that matched their gender identity. Gupta also helped the federal Education Department in issuing guidance to schools about supporting transgender students, including eliminating sex discrimination in shared facilities like bathrooms.