Kristen Clarke Confirmed as Civil Rights Chief at Justice Department

Controversial DOJ nominee has history of anti-Semitism

Kristen Clarke / Getty Images
May 25, 2021

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Kristen Clarke as assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, capping a months-long nomination battle that was hotly contested.

The final vote was 51-48, with Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) joining Democrats to support Clarke’s nomination. Democrats teed up the vote to coincide with the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, touting Clarke’s confirmation as a victory for their criminal justice agenda.

"As we continue to pursue strong policing reform legislation, the fight for racial justice by confirming Kristen Clarke on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder is particularly poignant and appropriate," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said on the floor before the confirmation vote.

Republicans opposed Clarke’s nomination, citing her anti-police rhetoric and ties to anti-Semites. The Washington Free Beacon reported that Clarke opposed civil rights prosecutions of black defendants, concealed ties to an anti-Semitic writer, and downplayed her involvement with an academic conference that hailed cop-killers as political prisoners.

As legislative gridlock on voting rights and criminal justice reform continues, Clarke’s office will become the locus for the Biden administration’s civil rights agenda. Even if legislative accomplishments prove elusive, the department can notch victories that will outlast the administration by entering reform agreements with police departments or prevailing in litigation.

Upon assuming office, Clarke will confront a range of pressing issues. She will be a major player in identifying how the department will handle legal challenges to new voting procedures in red states enacted after the 2020 election. She will oversee pattern and practice investigations into police departments accused of serial misconduct. And she will help implement a 2020 Supreme Court decision on LGBT rights as it pertains to issues like women’s sports, bathroom access policies, and conscience-based objections for religious dissenters.

Clarke is one of a handful of political appointees confirmed for a Justice Department post since President Joe Biden took office. The president has yet to nominate someone to lead the department’s antitrust division, an appointment closely watched for its implications for Silicon Valley and anti-competitive conglomerates. Nor has Biden named a solicitor general, the high-ranking department official who represents the government before the Supreme Court.

The principal deputy in the civil rights division is Pamela Karlan, the Stanford Law School professor who set off a short-lived controversy when she made a pun involving Barron Trump while testifying before the House Judiciary Committee during the first impeachment of the former president. Karlan, who led the division on an interim basis prior to Clarke’s nomination, is a major figure in the voting and LGBT rights areas. Of late, she helped craft the legal strategy culminating in the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision, which extended anti-discrimination protections to LGBT workers. Karlan argued the case before the High Court.

Democrats and major media cast Clarke’s confirmation as historic, claiming she will be the first female minority to lead the civil rights division. Vanita Gupta, now the number three at the Justice Department, led the division for two years on an acting basis in the Obama administration. Clarke is the first female minority to fill the post after a Senate confirmation.