Pick for civil rights post has liberal cred and conservative allies

Attorney General Eric Holder considers the Civil Rights Division the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department – but the administration’s last attempt to give it a permanent leader ended in disaster.

Then-nominee Debo Adegbile was lauded for his qualifications as a civil rights lawyer who spent more than a decade with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But his involvement in an appeal for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, drew ire from the Fraternal Order of Police and other groups eager to stop his confirmation.

Republicans, with help from several Senate Democrats, defeated the confirmation 47-52 in March.

Now, the administration has picked Vanita Gupta as acting head of the division and Obama reportedly plans to nominate her as its permanent leader. As the ACLU’s deputy legal director, she has been an outspoken advocate of liberal causes. But she also has notable conservative allies.

According to the Huffington Post:

If Gupta is tapped for the civil rights post on a permanent basis, she’d undoubtably be one of the Obama administration's most liberal nominees. But she’s not just winning backing from her fellow civil rights attorneys and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Also weighing in with support are conservatives, including Grover Norquist, representatives of the legislative group ALEC, and former National Rifle Association President David Keene no fan of the Civil Rights Division’s work.

Keene called the division “the worst place” in the department. But he sees Gupta as a collaborator and a surprising choice from the administration.

“Most of the Obama administration people have been so ideologically driven that they won’t talk to people who disagree with them,” Keene said, according to the Washington Post. “Vanita is someone who works with everyone.”

Gupta, who is originally from the Philadelphia area, managed ACLU’s response to turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., following the killing of Michael Brown in August. The division is investigating the Ferguson Police Department for evidence of unlawful policing.

Early in her career, Gupta also was at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund where she helped free 38 defendants convicted of bogus drug charges in Tulia, Tex.

She also won a settlement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency on behalf of immigrant children held in a private prison in Taylor, Tex., as the Post notes.

A confirmation could be more difficult if Democrats lose the Senate in November. The New York Times editorial board writes that Gupta’s support from some outspoken conservatives could give her an advantage, even in highly politicized Washington.

The board wrote:

A vote is always a risk, particularly since the fight to replace Mr. Holder may not be pretty. But as Attorney General Eric Holder prepares to leave after six transformative and tumultuous years, Ms. Gupta is primed to expand on the most important parts of his legacy.

The division has been without a permanent head since Tom Perez left as assistant attorney general last year to serve as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing. ​