Judiciary Committee Splits on Controversial Justice Department Nominee

Kristen Clarke's confirmation could depend on senators she's criticized

Kristen Clarke / Getty Images
May 13, 2021

The Senate Judiciary Committee split evenly along party lines Thursday in a vote to advance the hotly contested nomination of Kristen Clarke for civil rights chief at the Department of Justice.

The indecisive result is not a significant setback for Clarke, whose anti-Semitic past and race-driven approach to litigation has made her a top target for Republican lawmakers. Senate Democrats can still advance her nomination out of committee by holding a special procedural vote, called a discharge motion.

It remains unclear how such a vote will turn out. Clarke has criticized two lawmakers who hold the decisive votes for her confirmation, Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska). Clarke has tried to walk back past criticisms of those two senators in recent days. Neither Manchin nor Murkowski have indicated publicly whether they will support her, but Republican lawmakers were doubtful they would defeat her nomination during Thursday's hearing.

Clarke's inaccurate response to a written question about her ties to the anti-Semitic writer Amiri Baraka set off a fresh round of controversy before Thursday's committee vote. Though Clarke denied having professional ties to Baraka, the Washington Free Beacon found they served together as editors of the scholarly journal Souls for at least two years.

"I am not accusing her of being anti-Semitic. My point is only to say that she's associated herself and her name with those who are. That is independently troubling," Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) said.

Jews often figured as villains in Baraka's poetry. In one poem, he called on poets to stick "dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner-jews." In another, he claimed the Israeli government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 terror attack.

The ongoing fuel shortage emergency on the East Coast is refocusing attention on Clarke's involvement with the legal coalition that helped kill the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Though the pipeline would have transported natural gas, not fuel, the lack of pipeline infrastructure in states like Virginia and North Carolina is a lead contributor to the current crisis. The ACP would have served both states.

The Free Beacon reported that Clarke and the advocacy group she leads, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, filed legal papers supporting an effort to quash a permit for a compressor station on the ACP that was critical to the project. Clarke's brief argued that the station would disproportionately harm a black community near Buckingham County, Va., and suggested developers had targeted the community on purpose.

Developers and two regulatory agencies found those claims were baseless. Census data show the population within a one-mile radius of the site is not predominantly black. And scientists from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Air Pollution Control Board concluded emissions would be well within safe standards. Air quality in Buckingham County would have remained higher than most other parts of the state even with an operational compressor station, those experts concluded.

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nonetheless sided with Clarke and the anti-pipeline plaintiffs. ACP developers ultimately killed the project due to mounting legal costs and an uncertain regulatory environment. Manchin was a supporter of the project, which would have created thousands of jobs in his state.

If confirmed, Clarke will enforce federal hate crimes and anti-discrimination laws and oversee civil rights investigations into law enforcement agencies.