President Obama plans to nominate a top lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department, which has been without a permanent leader for more than a year.
Vanita Gupta, a longtime civil rights lawyer, deputy legal director of the ACLU and director of its Center for Justice, will be appointed acting head of the division Wednesday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., administration officials said.
An administration official said the White House is expected to nominate her in the coming months to be the permanent assistant attorney general for civil rights, a division that oversees voting rights and civil rights investigations, including the ones Holder recently opened on the police department in Ferguson, Mo., and the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old by a Ferguson police officer. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Gupta, 39, who was born in the Philadelphia area to immigrant parents, has been praised by a wide array of political activists for her civil rights work, especially on prison reform, an issue on which liberals and conservatives have found common ground.
“In that zone, she’s been good to work with and a serious person,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said in an interview. “She’s been open to working with conservatives on good policy. She has played a strong role in the left-right cooperation in criminal justice issues.”
David Keene, who was president of the National Rifle Association from 2011 to 2013, also praised Gupta’s “collaborative approach.”
“Vanita is a very good person,” he said in an interview. “I’ve worked with her on criminal justice reform issues. Most of the Obama administration people have been so ideologically driven that they won’t talk to people who disagree with them. Vanita is someone who works with everyone. She both listens to and works with people from all perspectives to accomplish real good.”
The Justice Department’s civil rights division has been without a permanent leader since its former head Tom Perez was confirmed as labor secretary in July 2013. Obama then nominated Debo Adegbile, a lawyer from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to head the division.
But Adegbile’s nomination set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill, where conservatives adamantly opposed him, and the country’s largest police organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, lobbied hard to derail the nomination because of Adegbile’s involvement in an appeal filed on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an internationally known prisoner convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
In March, several Senate Democrats joined Republicans to defeat Adegbile’s nomination in a 47-52 vote.
Darrel Stephens, a former police chief and the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said he “looks forward to working with” Gupta.
“I appreciate her reaching out to the police community on civil rights issues. That suggests that when this appointment is made, she is going to be very collaborative and looking for ways to work with law enforcement to help resolve the many challenges we have,” Stephens said.
Gupta, too, worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund founded by the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, where she began her career as a lawyer.
Her first case involved leading an effort to win the release of 38 defendants in Tulia, Tex., whose drug convictions and long sentences were discredited by her legal team. All of the defendants were pardoned in 2003 by Gov. Rick Perry, and Gupta helped negotiate a $5 million settlement for the defendants.
Gupta won a landmark settlement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on behalf of immigrant children detained at Hutto, a privately run prison in Taylor, Tex., which ended “family detention” at the facility. She also has challenged racial disparities in high school graduation rates in Florida and successfully challenged the denial of passports to Mexican Americans born to midwives in southern border states. And she managed a project that ended HIV segregation in U.S. prisons.
Since 2008, Gupta has taught civil rights litigation and advocacy clinics at New York University School of Law. She received her JD from New York University School of Law and her BA from Yale University.
In July, Holder appointed Molly Moran, his deputy chief of staff, to be acting head of the civil rights division. Moran will now move to the associate attorney general’s office to be the principal deputy associate attorney general to acting head Stuart Delery.
Holder met with the civil rights division Wednesday morning to announce the personnel moves.
“Even as she has done trailblazing work as a civil rights lawyer, Vanita is also known as a unifier and consensus builder,” Holder told the civil rights division lawyers, according to a person who was at the meeting. “She has a knack for bridging differences and building coalitions to drive progress.”