Senate Panel Split on Party Lines Over Pick for Top Civil Rights Post

Despite the committee deadlock, President Biden’s nominee to oversee the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division could still be confirmed by the full Senate. 

Kristen Clarke, an attorney tapped by President Joe Biden for a directorship at the Department of Justice, testifies at a Wednesday, April 14, 2021, hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In an 11-11 vote early Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked over whether to move attorney Kristen Clarke’s nomination for assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to the Senate floor for a full vote.

However, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can move to discharge her nomination out of the committee for a debate and floor vote if he so chooses.

Clarke – like Vanita Gupta, who’s since been confirmed as associate attorney general – was a controversial choice due to her ideological background and past activism. In the days following her nomination, Clarke was criticized by Republican lawmakers and right-wing media for an article she wrote advocating for aggressive police reform. 

She was also repeatedly criticized for a Harvard Crimson op-ed she co-authored in 1994, satirizing Charles Murray’s book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure.” The article argued that Black people were genetically superior to white people to mimic the claims made by Murray. 

The attorney walked back her more controversial statements during her confirmation hearing last month, but Thursday’s committee meeting showed it wasn’t enough to sway Republicans. 

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, likened Clarke to Gupta and called her a “partisan warrior.” 

“Her record is extremely troubling,” he said, “and I’m concerned that she will weaponize the tools of the Civil Rights Division,” like pattern or practice investigations, to “defund the police.” 

Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz called both Clarke and Gupta “two of the most radical nominees that have ever been put forward to any position in the federal government.” He claimed that as an undergraduate student at Columbia University, Clarke helped organize a conference with speakers who supported “convicted cop-killers” like Mumia Abu-Jamal. 

Senator Mike Lee of Utah asked whether Clarke opposed all voter intimidation “or just voter intimidation against certain groups.” He pointed out that the attorney criticized the Justice Department for prosecuting a Black Mississippi activist in 2006 for allegedly intimidating white voters. 

He also hinted at Clarke possibly supporting anti-Semitic views, noting that in 2017 she signed a letter defending activist Tamika Mallory, a Women’s March leader who came under fire for writing that white Jews “uphold white supremacy.” Clarke later claimed that the letter in support also denounced anti-Semitism. 

“I’m confused,” Lee said. “How is it that a letter defending a woman accused of making anti-Semitic statements could actually be a letter denouncing anti-Semitism?” 

But Clarke’s supporters argued that such criticisms against her are either overblown or unfounded. Senator Richard Blumenthal, himself Jewish, found Lee’s accusation of anti-Semitism “troubling.” 

“I don’t think there’s an anti-Semitic bone in Ms. Clarke’s body judging by her record,” the Connecticut Democrat said, noting “the support that she has from the National Council of Jewish Women, the Anti-Defamation League,” and other Jewish civic organizations. 

“If you were inventing a nominee from scratch, you’d come up with Kristen,” Senator Amy Klobuchar said, a Minnesota Democrat. 

Clarke could still be confirmed to oversee the division. A month after Gupta ran into a similar debacle, the Democrat-led Senate voted to discharge the nomination from the committee to bring it to a full vote. 

“Despite Republican obstruction, she will be confirmed by this chamber,” Schumer said at the time. 

Gupta was confirmed with a 51-49 vote, with Senator Lisa Murkowski casting the lone Republican vote. 

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