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'Trailblazing' ACLU Lawyer to Lead DOJ’s Civil Rights Division

Vanita Gupta named acting head of department, set to be nominated for permanent position

Vanita Gupta has been described as "an outstanding attorney with a significant depth and breadth of civil rights experience." (Photo: AP)

Vanita Gupta has been described as "an outstanding attorney with a significant depth and breadth of civil rights experience." (Photo: AP)

Human rights champion and deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Vanita Gupta has been named as the new acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which has been without a set leader for over a year, and will be nominated for the permanent position by President Barack Obama by the end of the year, the Washington Post reports.

Even with Gupta’s progressive values—she has fought for ending mass incarceration, spoken out against civil asset forfeiture, and favors legalizing marijuana—she has been able to find wide, bipartisan appeal in Congress and beyond. The Post writes that outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder introduced Gupta to her new department saying, "even as she has done trailblazing work as a civil rights lawyer, Vanita is also known as a unifier and consensus builder."

On the progressive side of the aisle, Gupta has allies at the NAACP, where she worked before joining ACLU; Sherrilyn Ifill, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund president, told Time Gupta has "expertise in bringing law enforcement and communities of color to the same table, in pursuit of common goals of fairness and accountability."

But also among her supporters are staunchly conservative figures like Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, who credits Gupta for playing "a strong role in the left-right cooperation in criminal justice issues." Former chairman of the American Conservative Union David A. Keene said Gupta "both listens to and works with people from all perspectives to accomplish real good."

That expertise will likely prove invaluable for the position, as Gupta is joining the Justice Department in the middle of its investigations into high-profile, racially fraught cases like the police shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent militarized response to protesters who have been calling for justice in months since.

In a recent radio interview with WNYC, Gupta said what the events in Ferguson "laid bare is something that communities of color, kind of at the target of the war on drugs, have known for the last several decades: that policing in their communities is often highly militarized."

"The question will be that once the cameras leave Ferguson, once the Ferguson hashtag is no longer trending on Twitter, is there going to be the political will and resolve to actually address what has been a very alarming situation in local and state police departments around the country," Gupta said. "Because there’s no question that this has really gone out of control."

Her own personal experience is also significant. Born to immigrant parents in Philadelphia, Gupta has been a victim of racially charged and violent crimes. In 1992, when Gupta was 17, her paternal grandmother was murdered during a house robbery in Sahibabad, India—a killing which remains unsolved to this day.

"The anguish that it caused my family will never go away," Gupta wrote of the experience.

She also once recounted an incident in London, when a group of skinheads entered a McDonald’s where she—then five years old—was eating lunch with her parents and grandmother. "Go home, Pakis!" they reportedly yelled, throwing french fries at her family until they left the restaurant.

"It was just a very vivid demonstration of what it's like to grow up as a person of color in a very troubled time," she told the New York Times.

Gupta’s bipartisan appeal will likely make her transition into the Justice Department smoother than the previous nominee for the civil rights division head, Debo Adegbile.

Adegbile was rejected for the position in 2013 for his work in defending former Black Panther and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1982 of killing a white police officer. His selection was met with a massive pushback from the country’s largest police lobby, as well as a heated vote in the U.S. Senate that eventually overturned the nomination.

Gupta’s relationship with police representatives is less contentious. Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, told the Post she will be "very collaborative and looking for ways to work with law enforcement to help resolve the many challenges we have."

In her first case as a lawyer with the NAACP, Gupta secured the release of 38 defendants in Tulia, Texas who had been arrested in a drug sting. Her legal team discredited their charges, which had been built on the uncorroborated testimony of one officer. The operation in the isolated, rural area in the western part of the state had seen more than a tenth of the town’s black population arrested.

Throughout her career, Gupta has championed the human rights of oft-dismissed demographics, including leading a project that ended HIV segregation in U.S. prisons.

She received her BA from Yale University and JD from New York University School fo Law. Subsequently, she began teaching civil rights litigation and advocacy clinics at NYU in 2008.

Gupta is "a superb choice for this critically important position," said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero. She "is an outstanding attorney with a significant depth and breadth of civil rights experience. She is a proven and well-respected leader, a creative thinker who has consistently worked collaboratively to achieve significant results."

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