Two decades ago, a former rodeo cowboy went undercover in Tulia, Texas. He targeted dozens of Black residents and accused them of selling small amounts of cocaine. He lied on the stand. Some defendants received sentences of decades in prison on his word alone.
The Lone Star State’s attorney general named the former rodeo cowboy as lawman of the year. But not long after, a young attorney weeks into her job at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund flew down to Texas, where she launched a campaign to fight for the defendants’ freedom and eventually secured a multimillion-dollar settlement.
On Tuesday, that civil rights lawyer, Vanita Gupta, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearing for the No. 3 position in the Justice Department. The former Texas attorney general who named that racist informant “lawman of the year,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn, will be on the other side of the dais. And he’ll probably have some questions about law enforcement and race.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see why Gupta, President Joe Biden’s nominee for associate attorney general, is drawing the ire of some Republican senators. Biden’s nominees for attorney general and deputy attorney general ― Merrick Garland and Lisa Monaco, respectively ― are both white and have spent their careers predominately on the bench and in law enforcement. Gupta, the daughter of immigrants from India, built her career as a civil rights advocate, the type of background that has doomed Justice Department nominees as recently as 2014.
Unsurprisingly, some GOP senators have signaled that they plan to attack and oppose Gupta. They’ll claim it’s because they “back the blue.” The only problem? “The blue” backs Gupta.
Policing leaders, as HuffPost first reported last month, have pushed back on the baseless “law and order”-style attacks that a D.C. conservative group launched against Gupta. Her nomination is supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Major County Sheriffs of America, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association and even the National Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Donald Trump twice.
Gupta has received even more support from top law enforcement officials in recent days. In a letter obtained by HuffPost, Democratic attorneys general from 22 states wrote that Gupta was “guided by a commitment to public safety,” had “worked to build partnerships across the political spectrum,” and “has a long history of working with law enforcement agencies, elected leaders, correctional officials, and advocates from many different viewpoints to build support for policies that will make our criminal justice system more just.” They also wrote that Gupta was a “smart, honest lawyer who would serve the Attorney General and the U.S. government with shared focus and mission: equal justice under the law.”
The message from law enforcement leaders is clear. They know Vanita Gupta. They like Vanita Gupta. And while they might not always agree with her, they know they can work with her.
Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo said during a conference call in support of Gupta’s nomination last week that the attacks on her amounted to “character assassination of a woman that is eminently qualified.”
“It gets a little old: Elected officials stand for the blue, they back the blue, the thin blue line,” Acevedo said. “Well, guess what? There is unanimous support from all the major law enforcement groups in this country.”
But the Republican attacks are coming anyway. Sen. Tom Cotton joined in. Sen. Mike Lee has made her a target. And Cornyn, who awarded that racist informant years ago for helping to convict dozens of Black residents of Tulia on bogus charges, is very upset that Gupta has acknowledged and spoken about bias in law enforcement.
Cornyn’s criticism of Gupta dates back to a hearing over the summer, when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in her capacity as president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Cornyn asked panelists for their views on systemic racism, and Gupta replied that she didn’t think there was “an institution in this country that isn’t suffering from structural racism, given our history.” She later said that all Americans “have implicit bias and racial biases,” concepts that even middle school students are learning and grasping two decades into the 21st century. Cornyn ― part of a panel of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee that consists of nine white men as well as Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marsha Blackburn ― acted shocked.
On Tuesday, Gupta plans to reference the Tulia case in her introductory remarks and mention how former Texas Gov. Rick Perry pardoned dozens of her clients.
“The Tulia exonerations helped usher in a new era of bipartisan criminal justice reform. Texas led the way as one of the first states to start to roll back decades of racially unjust mass incarceration policies, saving lives and billions in taxpayer dollars. Other states like Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana have followed suit,” Gupta will say, according to prepared remarks shared with reporters. “From that early experience on, I have spent my career dedicated to making real the promise of our federal laws and Constitution — and leading with my long-held conviction that addressing difficult problems requires building consensus.”
Garland stood by Gupta as well as Kristen Clarke ― Biden’s nominee to head the Civil Rights Division who has also come under attack ― during his confirmation hearing last month. Along with the support of many law enforcement officials as well as Republicans and conservatives, the Biden administration hopes they can hold Senate Democrats together, pick up some Republicans and bring Gupta’s confirmation over the finish line.
Cornyn’s role in the confirmation process isn’t the only way the Tulia scandal that shaped Gupta’s career is coming full circle. Federal grants for law enforcement fueled the narcotics task force that produced the Tulia scandal. As associate attorney general, Gupta would oversee federal law enforcement grants.