Civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta made history on Wednesday, when the United States Senate voted to confirm her as Associate Attorney General, making her the first Indian American to serve as the US Justice Department’s third-highest ranking official. Gupta was narrowly confirmed by a vote of 51 to 49, with only one Republican breaking ranks to join the Democrats in approving her nomination.
“She will bring a long overdue perspective to our federal law enforcement agency,” Senate Majority Leader, Senator Chuck Schumer, said, pointing out that Gupta would also be the first woman of colour and civil rights attorney to serve in this post.
In a highly contentious confirmation process, Republican Senators were nearly unanimous in their opposition to Gupta’s nomination. They argued that she was a “radical” nominee, and condemned her stance on a range of hot-button issues, like defunding the police and the legalisation of drugs.
Who is Vanita Gupta?
After graduating from New York University’s School of Law in 2001, Vanita Gupta started her legal career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It was here that she rose to national prominence after she investigated a series of drug-related convictions and arrests of several men in Tulia, Texas. Almost all of the men convicted were black. She proved that the charges had all been fabricated by a narcotics agent named Tom Coleman. As a result of her case, 35 of the men were pardoned by the then-Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, in 2003.
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She later joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a staff attorney, where she worked extensively to foster collaboration between law enforcement agencies, advocates, stakeholders and elected officials in an attempt to make the US’ criminal justice system more effective. She later rose to serve as Deputy Legal Director and the Director of the Center for Justice at ACLU.
In 2014, she was appointed by then-President Barack Obama to serve as Acting Assistant Attorney General and head of the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Under the Obama administration, Gupta led several criminal and civil enforcement efforts to help protect the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals, victims of human trafficking and hate crimes, and also ensure voting rights for all, and equal opportunity in housing, employment and lending.
Until recently, she served as the Chief Executive Officer of the US’ oldest civil rights coalition — The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Gupta was born and raised in Philadelphia. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University. She is married to Chinh Q. Le, the Legal Director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. The couple has two children.
Gupta’s confirmation proceedings
In January, this year, President Joe Biden nominated Gupta as Associate Attorney General, the third highest ranking position at the Department of Justice (DOJ). He described the Indian American as “one of the most respected civil rights lawyers in America.”
Opposing Gupta’s nomination, a majority of Republicans called her a ‘radical’ candidate, arguing that she has long been critical of Republican lawmakers and has proven to be an “extremely partisan advocate”. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Gupta had a “a record of astoundingly radical positions.”
“She’s levied attacks on members of this body, and during the confirmation process, she employed the loosest possible interpretation of her oath to deliver honest testimony,” he said. During her confirmation hearing, Gupta apologised for “harsh rhetoric” she may have used in the past against Republican leaders.
Despite the Republican Party’s resistance, a number of prominent Conservative voices have backed her nomination. Last month, a group of anti-Trump conservatives launched a $1 million ad campaign in support of Gupta, the Washington Post reported. Conservative groups involved in criminal justice, such as Koch Industries and Grover Norquist, have also supported her, the New York Times reported.
The Republican Party’s criticism of Gupta was largely centred around her work under the Obama administration. Despite Gupta repeatedly stating that she did not support calls to defund the police, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, insisted that she did.
Only one Republican lawmaker, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, broke the ranks to support Gupta’s nomination. She said that she chose to back Gupta following a lengthy conversation with her prior to the hearing. “I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to a woman who I believe has demonstrated throughout her professional career to be deeply, deeply committed to matters of justice,” Murkowski explained.
Vice President Kamala Harris was present at the procedural vote in case of a possible 50-50 tie, but her vote was not necessary after Mukowski decided to support Gupta.
What are Gupta’s duties as Associate Attorney General?
As Associate Attorney General of the US’ Justice Department, Gupta will be in charge of the department’s civil rights litigation as well as its antitrust, civil and environment divisions.