Leaders urge historic DOJ confirmation of Kristen Clarke against GOP opposition

Exclusive: Clarke would become the first Black woman to lead the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

Kristen Clarke x theGrio.com
Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by President-elect Joe Biden at The Queen theater January 07, 2021 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Kristen Clarke is poised to make history as the first Black woman to lead the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division — but not before her nomination gets past political opposition from Senate Republicans.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday on Clarke’s nomination and ended with an 11-11 tied vote, bringing her one step closer to confirmation in the full U.S. Senate. Judging by the committee vote and the line of questioning from Republican members of the committee during Clarke’s hearing last month, her nomination will likely end up falling along party lines.

In an effort to ensure Clarke’s historic Senate confirmation, members of Congress, civil rights groups and Black women-led organizations have championed Clarke not only as qualified to head the division but as the best woman for the job.

Read More: Meet Kristen Clarke, Biden’s historic appointee to champion civil rights at the DOJ

“Experience is the best teacher and [Kristen Clarke] has experience, and I maintain that probably the experiences that nobody else has, especially within this environment,” U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn tells theGrio. “I think she brings to this position the kind of experience and disposition that will make her an outstanding member of the president’s team.”

National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing discussing hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

If confirmed, Clarke, on behalf of the United States Government, would be responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion and national origin. Fittingly, the 45-year-old attorney’s career began at the department in 2000 serving as a trial attorney prosecuting cases on voting rights, hate crimes and human trafficking. 

Later, Clarke co-led the political arm of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was founded by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; led the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York State Attorney General’s office; and is currently on leave as president and executive director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Despite her robust and relevant background as a civil rights attorney, however, Republican lawmakers and conservative organizations have been loud about their opposition to Clarke’s nomination. 

During her Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s ranking member, called Clarke “controversial,” as GOP senators incessantly grilled Clarke not on her qualifications or knowledge, but on social media posts and past writings — one of which was penned when she was a 19-year-old college student at Harvard University.

Clarke, however, did not seem to break a sweat as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), John Cornyn (R-TX) and others pressed her on statements she made concerning defunding the police and expanding the Supreme Court. For nearly two hours, Clarke assured incensed Republicans that she is not anti-law enforcement (she is endorsed by numerous law enforcement groups), does not support defunding the police (she applauds President Joe Biden’s plan to invest $300 million in policing) and is not an advocate for expanding the Supreme Court beyond supporting President Biden’s commission to study aspects of reforming the Supreme Court.

It’s unclear if Clarke’s performance at her hearing was enough to sway the conservative doubt, however, Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) tells theGrio he is proudly voting in the affirmative for Clarke, whom he has called a “friend.”

“I am incredibly proud to support Kristen Clarke’s nomination to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. Kristen has dedicated her career to defending and fighting for the civil rights of all Americans,” Booker said in a statement. “I urge my colleagues to confirm Kristen Clarke and allow one of our country’s most experienced civil rights attorneys to serve as Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)

Congressman Clyburn adds that Clarke has “demonstrated throughout all of her public service that she’s very qualified for this position.”

Responding to Republican attacks — which have included fiery segments on Fox News and an expensive ad campaign financed by the conservative Judicial Crisis Network — the South Carolina lawmaker added, “I don’t know why people think that you’ve got to agree with their position on everything in order to be qualified to do your job.”

Clarke’s nomination is being supported well beyond the halls of Capitol Hill. Civil rights groups and organizations led by Black women have been organizing in an effort to ensure that Biden’s nominee not only gets confirmed but with bipartisan support.

Karen Boykin-Towns, who is the vice-chair of the NAACP Board of Directors, tells theGrio that the legacy organization mobilized members across the country and reaching out to senators to ensure their support of Kristen Clarke’s nomination.

“We have our leaders in states like Alaska and West Virginia engaged in talking to their senators on this matter, because this is truly important,” says Boykin-Towns. “We believe that she should be confirmed and the nation needs its top civil rights law enforcement officer — and we need her now.”

Kristen Clarke
Kristen Clarke, President of the National Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, testifies during a Senate Rules Committee hearing. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Boykin-Towns says in addition to her track record as an attorney, Clarke would be the most credentialed having attended Harvard for her undergraduate studies and obtained her J.D. from Columbia Law School. But it’s Clarke’s origin story as the daughter of immigrants she feels also distinguishes her as a leader who can stand up for marginalized communities.

“She is a daughter of Jamaican immigrants growing up … and one of the largest public housing complexes, Starrett City, here in Brooklyn,” she adds, noting a scholarship program Clarke was a part of in middle school that allowed her to attend a prep school for the academically gifted.

“Bottom line, this sista is bad and there is no credible reason for why she should not be confirmed,” she says.

Boykin-Towns says leaders of the NAACP spoke with Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, who represents Clarke’s home state, and that the New York senator is “100% in support of her nomination and committed to looking to get this done. Certainly, we need every Democratic vote and working to get consideration by some of the Republicans.”

Senate Majority Leader Schumer
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) [Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Pool/Getty Images]

Sen. Schumer on Thursday morning lambasted Republicans for attempting to “smear” Kristen Clarke’s record.

“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,” said Schumer.

“In Ms. Clarke’s hearing, it reached the point of absurdity when she was grilled on an obviously satirical piece she published for her college newspaper.”

Schumer later urged the Senate Judiciary to advance Clarke’s nomination. Now that Clarke’s nomination is out of committee, her fate comes down to a 50-50 split in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans, with two moderate Democrats in Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

Given the current political climate, it was not unexpected that there was no bipartisan support for Kristen Clarke in the Judiciary Committee was the goal, as was the case for another Biden DOJ nominee, Vanita Gupta, for the position of associate attorney general. There was, however, one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ultimately sided with Democrats to secure Gupta’s Senate confirmation.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, echoes Clarke’s preparedness for the role and says Republicans who oppose her really oppose the progress her appointment could bring to the DOJ Civil Rights Division.

“Kristen Clarke is precisely the person we need to run the Civil Rights Division at this moment in our country. She is well qualified in every way to take on the demands of leading this work at DOJ,” Ifill tells theGrio

“Those who oppose her confirmation are actually opposed to the confirmation of a real civil rights advocate to run the Civil Right Division. They don’t really oppose Kristen — they oppose robust civil rights enforcement. Her confirmation needs to move forward as quickly as possible.”

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