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Kristen Clarke Confirmed as First Black Woman to Head DOJ Civil Rights Division—with Support from Only One GOP Senator


Kristen Clarke

On the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, the Department of Justice officially received a new chief of the Civil Rights Division that continues to scrutinize that incident. The Senate confirmed Kristen Clarke to lead the office on Tuesday, with backing from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as the sole Republican breaking ranks in an otherwise party-line confirmation vote of 51 to 48.

Collins did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. Republican Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) did not cast a vote.

Citing her long history with the nation’s most prestigious civil rights groups, Clarke invoked past luminaries of organizations she worked for as inspirations for her legal career.

“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.”

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 arm 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.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) touted that experience in celebrating her confirmation.

“With her breadth of experience defending the civil rights of all Americans, Kristen Clarke is singularly qualified to lead this Division, particularly at this moment in history,” Durbin said. “Kristen Clarke is the legal expert we need to restore and reinvigorate the Civil Rights Division.”

The road to Clarke’s confirmation since President Joe Biden’s nomination was not easy or smooth.

The Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, set the tone for the initial hearings in describing Clarke as “very controversial,” despite acknowledging her capabilities as an attorney. Republicans repeatedly dredged up a Newsweek op-ed she wrote almost a year ago that was titled, “I Prosecuted Police Killings. Defund the Police—But Be Strategic.” It was a headline Clarke said she did not choose.

Clarke noted that the piece was an argument against outright defunding—and favoring resource re-allocation.

She eventually squeaked by committee in a dead heat, with some vituperative insinuations leveled against her by the committee’s right flank, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Durbin, however, celebrated the ultimate outcome in a statement denouncing some of the rhetoric against her from the other side of the aisle.

“At this moment in history, filling this Division, the Civil Rights Division, on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder on the streets of Minnesota, we are confirming the first woman of color in the history of the United States to head this Division,” he said. “It is an historic choice. It shouldn’t be trivialized by those who want to paint a caricature of a woman not even close to the truth. It shouldn’t be trivialized by ignoring the many endorsements she received because of her good life’s work, having spent her entire career defending the civil rights of all Americans. She is the right person for the job. President Biden believes it. The Attorney General believes it. I believe it as well.”

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing 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 NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."