WASHINGTON — The new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is a liberal activist lawyer who has spoken out on the “disastrous” war on drugs, the “morally bankrupt” prison industry, “out of control” police militarization, and the “broken” asset forfeiture program. She has called for the legalization of marijuana and wants the government to eliminate -- not just roll back -- mandatory minimum sentences.
Vanita Gupta also has a lot of Republican friends.
Gupta, the 39-year-old deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is set to take over the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division on an acting basis next week. An official familiar with the process confirmed that President Barack Obama plans to nominate her to take the role permanently.
If Gupta is tapped for the civil rights post on a permanent basis, she’d undoubtably be one of the Obama administration's most liberal nominees. But she’s not just winning backing from her fellow civil rights attorneys and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Also weighing in with support are conservatives, including Grover Norquist, representatives of the legislative group ALEC, and former National Rifle Association President David Keene -- no fan of the Civil Rights Division’s work.
“Frankly, the Civil Rights Division is the worst place over there. It’s been awful,” Keene told The Huffington Post. But Gupta, he said, is “very different from what you would expect from the Obama administration.” He said he thinks she’s a good pick.
“If the administration had picked people like this in the first place, they may not be in the situation they find themselves in today,” Keene said.
Marc Levin, of the conservative criminal justice reform group Right on Crime, said he thought Gupta a good candidate because of her work across the aisle. But he said he doesn't expect she will sail through the confirmation process.
“Like any appointee to this position, because it deals with things like voter ID that are controversial and pretty partisan these days, I think that she may get questions or even opposition on that,” Levin said.
Lisa Nelson, president of ALEC -- the American Legislative Exchange Council -- said Gupta was great to work with. Despite their many differences on policy issues, the ACLU and ALEC have collaborated on sentencing reform.
"I would say that she was very helpful, she worked with my team," Nelson said. "It was a really good, positive relationship."
The Civil Rights Division, which Attorney General Eric Holder has described as the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department, has been without an acting head since Tom Perez became Labor Secretary in mid-2013. A previous candidate was rejected by the Senate due to his successful work on a convicted cop-killer's high-profile death penalty appeal.
“I think Eric Holder’s legacy still has to be deepened and consolidated,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU and, until Friday at least, Gupta’s boss. “The attorney general has made criminal justice reform one of his signature programs, but they’re still at their nascent stage. Clearly the need to reform our criminal justice system is going to take determination and tenacity and the ability to work with law enforcement officials to get the job done, and in every respect Vanita will continue the work started by Eric Holder and make sure she brings the ball across the finish line.”
Gupta has been doing civil rights work her entire career. Fresh out of law school, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as a Soros postgraduate fellow, with her salary paid by the Open Society Institute. There, she jumped into a massive drug case out of Texas involving a corrupt, lying, racist former rodeo cowboy, whose false testimony as an undercover narcotics agent sent dozens of people to prison for years. His salary, it just so happened, was paid by a Justice Department anti-drug grant.
Talking about her involvement in that case in 2003, Gupta told The New York Times that she wasn’t quite sure where she got her interest in civil rights, but mentioned an experience as a young girl. Her family was sitting in a McDonald’s in London when a group of skinheads walked in. They reportedly yelled “Go home Pakis!” and hurled french fries at Gupta and her family until they fled the restaurant.
Gupta has served as deputy legal director of the ACLU for the past four years, and was an attorney in the ACLU's Racial Justice Program before that. In recent months, she's overseen the ACLU's "entire Ferguson strategy," according to Romero, and had supervised an in-depth study of police militarization that was completed months before protests in the St. Louis suburb drew national attention to the issue.
“What Ferguson has laid bare is something that communities of color, kind of at the target of the war on drugs, have known for the last several decades, that policing in their communities is often highly militarized,” Gupta said in a recent interview. “The question will be that once the cameras leave Ferguson, once the Ferguson hashtag is no longer trending on Twitter, is there going to be the political will and resolve to actually address what has been a very alarming situation in local and state police departments around the country. Because there’s no question that this has really gone out of control.”
It wasn't immediately clear whether Gupta's ACLU work on Ferguson would raise a conflict once she takes over the Civil Rights Division, where she would be overseeing the broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department as well as the division's involvement in the investigation of a Ferguson officer's killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
Holder held a conference call on Wednesday with representatives of several law enforcement groups to introduce Gupta, and at least one organization got a heads up about the announcement on Tuesday. For now, the law enforcement organizations that convinced lawmakers to nix the nomination of Debo Adegbile for involvement in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, are holding their fire.
“We haven’t articulated any particular statement at this time,” said Tim Richardson of the National Fraternal Order of Police.