The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kristen Clarke faced abuse for taking on Trump. Now she’s poised to lead Justice Department’s civil rights team.

Kristen Clarke speaks in Wilmington, Del., in January after President-elect Joe Biden announced her nomination to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Donald Trump was waging his baseless assault on the presidential election results last fall when Kristen Clarke, head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, opened her inbox to a stream of vicious threats over her efforts to fight back and protect the rights of voters.

Openly misogynistic, littered with racial epithets, the messages were of the variety that seeks to debase and intimidate prominent minority women. “May you be found guilty by military tribunal and executed by hanging,” one email read.

Clarke, who is Black, posted it on Twitter.

“Not deterred by those who harbor and espouse racism and hate,” she declared.

For Clarke, 46, the attacks were an ugly reminder that her rise to the highest ranks of civil rights advocacy offered no shield from hate and prejudice — and that her work on behalf of the disenfranchised is perhaps more crucial than ever at a time of rising white nationalism and an increasingly destructive culture war.

On Wednesday, Clarke will appear at a Senate confirmation hearing as President Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. She is poised to become the first woman confirmed to helm what former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. called the agency’s “crown jewel,” returning to the office where she began her professional career two decades earlier as a line attorney.

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In January, appearing with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris in Wilmington, Del., Clarke said the nation was “at a crossroads” and vowed to help “turn the page on hate and close the door on discrimination.”

“I see the future of America through the eyes of my son. And honestly, at times I am worried,” said Clarke, whose son, Miles, is 16. “Will he have full and equal access to the extraordinary opportunities of American life? Will he be able to embrace those opportunities in safety and dignity? Will all of America’s children?”

Her confirmation path is expected to be contentious, however. At the Lawyers’ Committee, Clarke was at the forefront of legal efforts to sue the Trump administration on voting rights, immigration, changes to the U.S. Census and the tear-gassing of protesters outside the White House last summer. She spoke out frequently against Trump and former attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William P. Barr.

Now, some conservatives fear that Clarke and Vanita Gupta — another civil rights lawyer, who is awaiting a Senate vote on her nomination to the Justice Department’s No. 3 position — will seek to quickly ramp up federal efforts to restructure local police departments, bolster prosecutions of hate crimes and expand voting access for minorities, and have sought to cast them as radical and extreme.

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Clarke’s supporters dismissed the attacks as a bad-faith effort to discredit her over the kind of powerful advocacy for fair treatment that is at the center of civil rights law.

“When a civil rights lawyer has built an illustrious career in federal courts speaking out on equality and access, the question always is whether they are biased,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where Clarke worked from 2006 until 2011. “Very few talk about what makes Kristen so unique for this position in this special moment we are in. If you think about the array of civil rights legal organizations, it’s really Kristen who has been leading this very innovative work prosecuting hate groups.”

Last week brought a tangible example: A D.C. Superior Court judge entered a default judgment against Proud Boys International for not defending itself against a lawsuit filed by the Lawyers’ Committee on behalf of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.

The church’s leaders had accused the far-right group of vandalizing a Black Lives Matter sign on its property in December. In January, Clarke tweeted a copy of the lawsuit and wrote: “The Proud Boys are NOT above the law.”

“Kristen is a zealous advocate. She chooses her words carefully, but she says what needs to be said,” said Taylor Dumpson, who in 2017 became the first Black woman to serve as student body president at American University in Washington.

In 2018, the Lawyers’ Committee, under Clarke’s direction, represented Dumpson in a lawsuit against Andrew Anglin, the founder and editor of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, accusing him and two other men of unleashing a “troll storm” of racist and threatening online messages against her. In 2019, Dumpson won a $700,000 judgment.

Dumpson now describes Clarke as a mentor who texted advice to help calm her nerves ahead of a congressional panel on online extremism.

“I’ve seen her in advocacy mode,” she said. “I’ve seen her in front of thousands of people talking to donors about why hate crimes are important. I’ve seen what her voice does in a room.”

Clarke’s first visit to a courtroom came three decades ago at Choate, an exclusive boarding school in Wallingford, Conn., when a teacher took her class to Hartford to watch oral arguments in Sheff v. O’Neill, a school desegregation case.

Clarke, whose parents immigrated from Jamaica, grew up in one of the nation’s largest federally subsidized public housing projects, in east Brooklyn, before earning a Prep for Prep scholarship for minority students that placed her at the boarding school.

The visit to the courtroom lit a spark, she has told associates, prompting her to reflect on the gulf between her own opportunities and the obstacles facing so many students of color — and beginning her interest in civil rights.

Susan Kartell, one of several female employees who sued the New York-based energy company ConEdison over sexual harassment in the mid-2010s, recalled an initial meeting with Clarke, who negotiated the case while serving as head of the New York attorney general’s civil rights bureau.

The employees had felt nearly hopeless after the case stalled under previous lawyers, Kartell said. But Clarke shared with them “obstacles she had faced over her career, trying to get to different areas where she wanted to be, whether it was putting herself through school or the overall doubtfulness she had to endure about her capabilities. She understood us.”

In 2015, Clarke and ConEdison reached a joint settlement for $3.8 million, and the company agreed to make structural changes.

After Choate, Clarke enrolled at Harvard University, where she served as president of the Black Students Association, a tenure that her conservative critics have highlighted recently to try to smear her reputation.

Shortly after Biden nominated Clarke for the influential Justice Department post, Fox News host Tucker Carlson assailed a letter she co-wrote in the student newspaper in 1994 that aimed to discredit what she called the “degrading, belittling and outrageously false” conclusions in the book “The Bell Curve,” which tied intelligence to race.

In the letter, Clarke and another student listed researchers who suggested that Blacks are intellectually superior because they produce more melanin, a point that she said earlier this year was “meant to express an equally absurd point of view” to rebut the pseudoscientific assertions in the book and that has been “twisted” out of context by conservatives.

Carlson also has sought to link Clarke to the anti-Semitic views of the late Wellesley professor Tony Martin, author of “The Jewish Onslaught,” who was among the guest speakers hosted by her group at Harvard that year. Martin had requested an audience with the group to speak against “The Bell Curve,” but he also used his speech to spout false theories about Jews persecuting Blacks.

Amid criticism on campus after the event, Clarke defended his refutation of the book by calling him “an intelligent, well-versed Black intellectual who bases his information on indisputable fact.”

“In a sane country, someone like Kristen Clarke would be under investigation by the civil rights division, not running it,” Carlson said on his show.

In an interview with Forward, a Jewish magazine, after her nomination, Clarke said that it had been a mistake to accept Martin’s request to speak to students and to defend him at the time. She said she “unequivocally” denounces anti-Semitism. Michael Goldenpine, a Hillel student leader at Harvard at the time, said recently that Clarke and the Black Students Association agreed to meet with an interfaith group shortly after Martin’s appearance to mend relations between Black and Jewish students.

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But several GOP senators have picked up on Carlson’s criticism. During Attorney General Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing in February, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked whether Clarke’s college statements were disqualifying.

Garland, who is Jewish, called Clarke a “person of integrity” whose views are in line with his own. “I have a pretty good view of what an anti-Semite is,” he said, “and I do not believe she is an anti-Semite, and I do not believe she is discriminatory in any sense.”

The GOP attacks are “ridiculous and offensive in every way,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, who worked with Clarke in the New York attorney general’s office. Spitalnick, who is Jewish, said the attacks “are grounded in dog whistles and misogyny and racism.”

Clarke earned her law degree from Columbia University and then spent six years in the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the George W. Bush administration. She left in 2006 to join the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, focusing on voting rights and leading a team that helped win an initial victory in Shelby v. Holder, which became a landmark Supreme Court case.

Authorities in Shelby County, Ala., had sued the Justice Department over two sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required that jurisdictions in states with a history of racial discrimination in voting obtain preclearance from the federal government before making changes to their electoral districts.

Clarke helped argue the case in U.S. District Court in Washington, which upheld the constitutionality of the law. An appeals court affirmed the decision. But the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in 2013 that a subsection of the law was unconstitutional because it relied on an outdated formula to determine which states must obtain preclearance.

Clarke has called the decision “one of the most devastating rulings of the last decade” and said that it “explains why we see so much voter suppression today.”

“She genuinely cares about people, is serious about her business and believes in what I believe in: justice and equality for all people,” said Ernest Montgomery, a Black council member in Calera, Ala., who was one of the intervenors in the case.

In the New York attorney general’s office from 2011 to 2015, Clarke continued to pursue voting rights cases, establishing an Election Day hotline to assist voters who were being turned away at the polls.

Those who worked with her recalled that she displayed in her office a framed photo of her son, Miles. It was taken during a trip Clarke had arranged for his second-grade class to a federal courthouse, where the students reenacted the historic Brown v. Board of Education case from 1954.

In the photo, Miles is stepping out of the witness box, clutching a Scooby Doo lunchbox in one hand and his oral arguments about the ills of segregation in the other.