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'Exactly the Person We Need': Senate Confirms Civil Rights Champion Vanita Gupta for Key Spot at DOJ

Every Republican senator except one voted against the veteran attorney and rights advocate.

Vanita Gupta, then-nominee for associate attorney general, testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Hart Building on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.

Vanita Gupta, then-nominee for associate attorney general, testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Hart Building on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday narrowly confirmed Vanita Gupta to be associate attorney general, eliciting praise from civil rights defenders.

The vote was 51-49, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska the sole Republican to join Democrats in voting for Gupta to be the third highest ranking official at the Justice Department.

A civil rights lawyer who has worked at both the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), Gupta will be the first woman of color to be associate attorney general. In the position, she will oversee the Justice Department's tax, antitrust, and civil rights divisions—the latter of which she led under the Obama administration.

Her nomination faced strong opposition from Republicans, which Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, denounced as "baseless smears" by the minority party.

Democratic lawmakers welcomed the confirmation.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Gupta "will bring a long overdue perspective to our federal law enforcement agency." 

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said she "dedicated her life to advancing equity, justice, and civil rights—work I know she'll continue at the Justice Department."

The confirmation also sparked an outpouring of praise from progressive organizations, some of whom put it in the context of the recent spate of police killings and Tuesday's conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.

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"Gupta's confirmation is especially crucial as the nation reckons with reimagining and reinventing a public safety system that works for everyone, as well as confronting the systemic racism that has excused centuries of police killings of Black people with impunity."
—Ben Jealous, People For The American Way
"Following yesterday's conviction," said People For the American Way president Ben Jealous, "Gupta's confirmation is especially crucial as the nation reckons with reimagining and reinventing a public safety system that works for everyone, as well as confronting the systemic racism that has excused centuries of police killings of Black people with impunity."

"Gupta is the best choice to be associate attorney general and her record of leadership on civil rights issues is unparalleled," said Jealous, who expressed confidence she'll "fight successfully for greater equity in our criminal legal system and for the rights and dignity of every person in America."

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of LDF, pointed to Gupta's record as a civil rights lawyer and leader as evidence "why she is exactly the right person to help return the Department of Justice to its mandate of civil rights enforcement," especially given "this critical moment in the history of our country."

Delivering a similar message was Damon Hewitt, acting president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "We are at a pivotal moment in our nation's history, an inflection point at which we are rebuilding and defending democracy at the same time," he said.

Citing her "extensive and unassailable record when it comes to integrity and expertise in the administration of justice," Hewitt declared Gupta "exactly the person we need to help lead the Justice Department and advance equal justice for all."

Jealous and Ifill also urged the Senate to confirm Kristen Clarke, Biden's nominee to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Like Gupta, Clarke is a woman of color, a civil rights lawyer, and a target of GOP attacks, as Politico reported this week.

Ifill, however, called Clarke and Gupta "extraordinary civil rights attorneys" whom she hopes "can work in tandem with Attorney General Merrick Garland to vigorously enforce civil rights protections, especially in the areas of voting rights, policing, and criminal justice."

"We look forward to working with the department as it fulfills this urgent and imperative mandate," said Ifill.

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