OP/ED: Why The Senate Needs To Confirm Kristen Clarke Now
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will finally vote on the nomination of Kristen Clarke for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice. The Committee should deliver a strong bipartisan vote for this imminently qualified nominee to this critical post, and then the full Senate should immediately vote to confirm her by a wide margin.
As critical as senior leadership is to the Justice Department, the nation needs its top civil rights law enforcement officer, and we need her now.
Ms. Clarke’s nomination has been pending for four months. She is the last of the four Department of Justice nominations announced by President Joe Biden in early January at a ceremony in Delaware. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta have all been confirmed by the Senate with Republican support.
More than any other time in recent history, we face immense challenges around racial justice. Police violence continues to take the lives of Black Americans. Domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy represents our greatest internal threat. Hate crimes are increasing in both frequency and intensity. The same forces galvanized by the violent challenge to the presidential election results are fomenting a new wave of voter suppression in legislatures all over the country. On top of everything else, we are still struggling with the devastating racial impacts of a pandemic now in its second year.
The work of the Civil Rights Division has never been more critical, and who leads the Division matters greatly. Kristen Clarke will make history when she is finally confirmed. Although the Civil Rights Division was created in 1957, the Senate has never confirmed a woman to serve as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
As the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Ms. Clarke would be the first Black woman and only the fourth Black American confirmed to lead the Division in 64 years. Importantly, she would bring her background and personal experiences to the job.
She grew up in one of the nation’s largest public housing complexes—Starrett City in Brooklyn—which became the subject of an NAACP lawsuit for its discriminatory practices. A scholarship program in middle school allowed her to attend a top prep school where she attended a hearing in a famous school desegregation case, lighting a spark that led to her civil rights career.
Kristen Clarke will also make history as one of the best credentialed lawyers ever to be appointed to the position. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, Ms. Clarke has devoted her entire career to safeguarding the rights of the diverse communities protected by our nation’s civil rights laws. She is one of the nation’s most respected civil rights leaders and widely regarded as a formidable litigator. The depth and breadth of her civil rights experience has meant she has litigated or supervised litigation in every substantive area in which the Civil Rights Division is engaged.
As a testament to her long-held belief that civil rights are never partisan, Ms. Clarke spent her first years as a lawyer working in the Civil Rights Division during the administration of President George W. Bush. The extensive support her nomination now enjoys from attorneys and public servants on both sides of the political aisle is a credit to her laser-like focus on enforcing civil rights to the fullest extent of the law.
Not only does Ms. Clarke have extensive federal experience, but she served for four years as Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the New York Attorney General’s Office. She has held leadership positions with two national civil rights litigating organizations. She headed the voting rights docket at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, founded by Thurgood Marshall, and currently serves as president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which enlists the private bar around the country to provide representation to victims of discrimination.
Ms. Clarke is a civil rights leader for our time.
As the nation struggles to address deadly force by police officers against the people of color they serve, Ms. Clarke brings experience prosecuting police misconduct cases and wide acclaim from national law enforcement organizations who know her as a bridge-builder. To counter the alarming increase in hate crimes, she brings expertise in prosecuting these crimes and a long record of combating hate-filled violence and bigotry. As the national wave of voter suppression grows even stronger, Ms. Clarke brings to the Division an entire career of ensuring full political participation for voters of color. As Attorney General Garland stated at his Senate hearing, he needs Kristen Clarke on his leadership team.
Our nation is still reeling from a lack of civil rights enforcement over the last four years. Today, we face multiple challenges on a host of fronts which threaten to impede our progress in achieving equal justice for all. We need Kristen Clarke at the helm of the Civil Rights Division to guide the nation forward. The Senate must take up her nomination quickly and vote to confirm her by an overwhelming margin. Our nation urgently needs its first Black woman in the job.
Karen Boykin-Towns serves as the Vice Chair of the NAACP Board of Directors, the oldest and largest non-partisan civil rights organization in the nation. Since concluding an impressive 22-year career at Pfizer Inc, she now serves as President/CEO of Encore Strategies, LLC. Dr. Hazel N. Dukes is President of the NAACP New York State Conference and a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors, a member of the NAACP Executive Committee and well as an active member of various NAACP board sub-committees. L. Joy Williams currently serves as the President of the Brooklyn NAACP, one of the most generational diverse branches in the country. Drawing upon her extensive career in politics, government and community work L. Joy believes in empowering communities with the knowledge and skills to be active participants in democracy.
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)