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DOJ Civil Rights Alums Back Kristen Clarke Ahead of Confirmation Battle

Kristen Clarke, seen here testifying in 2020, has come under attack from right-wing commentators. (Tom Williams via Getty Images)
Black Voices

More than 80 former Justice Department civil rights officials are backing the nomination of Kristen Clarke to head the storied Civil Rights Division, a key role that will shape the Biden administration’s agenda on issues like policing and voting rights in the next four years and beyond.

Clarke, who began her career at the Justice Department and could become the first Black woman confirmed to head the Civil Rights Division since its foundation, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for her confirmation hearing.

Two letters obtained by HuffPost backing Clarke’s nomination illustrate the support she has from Civil Rights Division alumni, who say that someone who knows the division as well as she does is the right person to head it at this critical time.

“Kristen Clarke has the background, experience, and personal qualities to perform the job of Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division,” wrote former Civil Rights Division chiefs Stephen Pollak, J. Stanley Pottinger, Deval Patrick, Bill Lann Lee and Thomas Perez. Those signatories served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

“We are convinced that Ms. Clarke possesses the legal acuity, character, and commitment to the mission of the Civil Rights Division to lead it successfully,” wrote 77 former career Civil Rights Division attorneys, who said Clarke had “been involved in nearly every area of civil rights enforcement” throughout her career.

If confirmed, Clarke would take over a Civil Rights Division still reeling from four years of the Trump administration, when key priorities like police oversight were put on hold. While many career Civil Rights Division employees left the Justice Department when Donald Trump took office because they worried about him rolling back the Obama administration’s civil rights legacy, many others held on in hopes that Trump would be a one-term president.

Now that Biden is in office ― and with hate crimes against Asian Americans on the rise, state legislators passing new voting restrictions based on Trump’s bogus claims of voter fraud, and yet another round of renewed attention on the deaths of Black Americans at that hands of the police ― civil rights proponents say getting the right person into the position expeditiously is critical.

The letter from the Civil Rights Division attorneys highlighted Clarke’s work as a trial attorney, where she “specialized in areas of crucial contemporary relevance.”

“In the Voting Section, she enforced the Voting Rights Act to ensure that all qualified people could cast meaningful ballots and participate equally in the political process. While in the Criminal Section, she handled matters involving law enforcement officers who violated constitutional rights and individuals who committed hate motivated violence,” they wrote. “These areas should be central priorities for the Division in the years ahead.”

Clarke has faced ugly attacks in conservative media, including from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has focused on a satirical letter she co-wrote to Harvard’s student newspaper in 1994 and her activities as a college student. Some Senate Republicans, who previewed their strategy on social media and during the confirmation hearing for Attorney General Merrick Garland, are expected to echo that criticism on Wednesday.

Vanita Gupta, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the No. 3 position at the Justice Department, also faced attacks from conservatives who claimed she was anti-cop in spite of her long track record of support from law enforcement. Gupta has the support of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and is ultimately expected to be confirmed in the divided Senate, but her nomination has been stalled by a deadlocked Senate Judiciary Committee. (Senate committees have the same number of Democrats and Republicans because of a power-sharing arrangement between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Tie votes still proceed to the Senate floor, but on a longer timeline.)

Clarke has worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, at the New York Attorney General’s office, and at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as executive director and president. (She left after her nomination.)

Joe Rich, who retired from the Lawyers’ Committee and has signed the letter supporting Clarke, has known the nominee her entire professional life: He was one of her supervisors at the beginning of her career, she was his boss at the end of his. Rich said Clarke was a remarkable young attorney at the Justice Department and did an “outstanding job” as executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, saying she brought the organization into an even stronger position.

Because Clarke spent her whole career in civil rights, Rich said, Republicans are trying to paint her as a “wild, left-wing radical,” a tactic that has been used on many candidates before her who also had a background in civil rights.

“Any time a civil rights person is publicly being discussed, the Republicans go after them as radicals,” Rich said. “It’s predictable, but it’s certainly outrageous to me.”

Leslie Proll, a civil rights attorney who advises the NAACP on judicial nominations, said there have been “unprecedented” attacks on Civil Rights Division nominees in recent decades because of how big of a role they play in a Democratic administration.

“It’s always one of the most controversial nominations of a Democratic administration, and I think it’s truly because it’s about that job,” Proll said. “This is somebody who knows civil rights, is going to do everything they can to enforce them, and the anti-civil rights senators and people supporting them are very much threatened by that and opposed to that.”

Proll, who has known Clarke for years and considers her a colleague and a friend, said she’s the right person to head up the division at this critical moment.

“You couldn’t ask for anybody more qualified for the position,” Proll said. “She’s fearless, she’s relentless… we’re all fortunate that she wants to contribute in this way.”

Proll said that Clarke’s opponents are “scraping the bottom of the barrel” with “unfair” and “offensive” attacks against someone “who has contributed so much to improving and protecting this democracy.”

Clarke will appear for her confirmation hearing on Wednesday alongside Todd Kim, Biden’s nominee to head the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. But just as senators mostly focused on Gupta — even as she appeared alongside the nominee for the department’s No. 2 position of deputy attorney general — Clarke’s nomination will draw most of the heat. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s website makes clear who will be subject to the most scrutiny: There are 37 letters listed in support of Clarke on the website and just six letters listed in support of Kim, whose nomination hasn’t been the subject of attacks by Fox News prime-time hosts.

In her opening statement, Clarke will reference a trip she took as a 16-year-old to a courthouse in Connecticut to hear arguments in a landmark school desegregation case. It was the first time that Clarke, who was raised by her Jamaican immigrant parents in a public housing complex in Brooklyn, had stepped inside a courthouse. Being confirmed to head the Civil Rights Division, she will tell senators, “would be fulfillment of the promise” she made to herself as a high school junior.

“As I look at my own son ― now the same age I was when I entered that Connecticut courtroom ― I remain committed to the promise of working every day to build a world of equal opportunity for all. A world where no 16-year-old is the target of hateful language. A world where no young man is racially profiled,” her statement says. “I dream of a world that values his mind, his heart (and his exceptional soccer skills) ― and does not push him aside because of the color of his skin. I dream that for every child in America.”