Kristen Clarke May Become First Black Woman Heading DOJ's Civil Rights Division
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Senate Judiciary Committee Hears Kristen Clarke’s Nomination to Lead DOJ Civil Rights Division. She Would Be the First Black Woman to Hold That Post.

Facing the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time on Wednesday on her nomination to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke would be the first Black woman to hold that post if confirmed, and she invoked another path-breaking figure in the law during her prepared remarks.

“When I left DOJ, I carried the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as my guide: ‘Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on,’” Clarke wrote. “I’ve tried to do just that at every step of my career.”

By a broader metric, Clarke could arguably be considered the first woman to head the division if confirmed. Female Assistant Attorneys General who have historically steered the division—notably including Vanita Gupta, under Barack Obama—never won confirmation and ascended to the role in an “acting capacity.”

Marshall was the first Black Supreme Court justice, but before his storied tenure on the high court bench, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Clarke worked for the the voting rights project of that organization and she previously served as the top civil rights officer at the New York State Attorney General’s Office, before her long career within the Department of Justice.

Demonstrating her bipartisan bona fides, Clarke served in the Justice Department’s Attorney General’s Honors Program for six years, primarily during the George W. Bush administration.

Clarke is now the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“In every role I’ve held, I have worked with and for people of all backgrounds—regardless of race, national origin, religion, or disability status,” Clarke wrote. “I’ve listened deeply to all sides of debates, regardless of political affiliation. There is no substitute to listening and learning in this work, and I pledge to you that I will bring that to the role if confirmed.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted that the Washington Post chronicled some of the abuse Clarke has faced for her opposition to former president Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Clarke posted one of the emails, which was strewn with racist slurs, on Twitter.

“May you be found guilty by military tribunal and executed by hanging,” it read.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee’s top Republican, called Clarke “very controversial,” though he does not doubt that she is a capable attorney. Grassley indicated in his opening remarks that he will question her on her column for Newsweek titled “I Prosecuted Police Killings. Defund the Police—But Be Strategic.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee is also considering the nomination of Todd Kim as the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, a component of the Justice Department in which he served for more than seven years.

“This is a crucial moment for the Division and the Nation, with the pressing imperatives of enforcing the Nation’s environmental laws with integrity; defending federal agencies; honoring the United States’s important relationship with Native American Indian Tribes; promoting the effective stewardship of public lands and natural resources; and addressing climate change and environmental justice,” Todd wrote in his prepared remarks.

“The cliche for me is real: I want to leave the world, and the country, a better place for my kids,” he added later.

Update—April 14 at 8:29 p.m. Central Time: This story has been updated to reflect that the hearing has concluded and to note that Clarke would be the first woman to be confirmed for the post, if confirmed.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's senior investigative reporter and editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks.