Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Obama and a long-time civil rights attorney, was finally confirmed on a near-party line vote on Wednesday to become the agency’s third-highest ranking official. Senator Lisa Murkowski was the lone Republican to vote to confirm Gupta as associate attorney general.
Republicans in the Senate have been rather upset about Gupta’s nomination, as well as the nomination of Kristen Clarke to head the DOJ’s civil rights work. And on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell felt the need to once again whine about the prospect of a woman of color who believes in federal civil rights enforcement and criminal justice reform occupying a high-ranking position in the Justice Department.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that he would “strongly oppose” Gupta’s nomination, arguing that she has “repeatedly amplified left-wing fear-mongering toward judicial nominees and sitting federal judges” and “levied attacks on members of this body.”
McConnell also accused Gupta of employing “the loosest possible interpretation of her oath to deliver honest testimony” during her confirmation process and said her reputation “contrasts sharply” with that of Attorney General Merrick Garland, whom he voted to confirm.
“The White House needs to make a better choice for this key post,” he said. “The Senate should create that opportunity by voting no today.”
With Gupta’s confirmation, and the expected confirmation of Clarke as the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, the DOJ is poised to once again aggressively investigate local police departments, a task that the Trump administration unsurprisingly refused to take up.
And Gupta’s confirmation comes just as Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the DOJ would be investigating the Minneapolis Police Department, a move that during the Obama administration, often led to court-enforced consent decrees and federal oversight of local police forces.
More, from the Washington Post:
Garland said the “pattern or practice” civil investigation would be conducted separately from an ongoing federal criminal probe opened during the Trump administration over whether Floyd’s civil rights were violated during his arrest and death last May.
The new examination will go beyond Floyd’s case, Garland said, to determine whether the Minneapolis department has engaged in systemic misconduct that constituted “unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”
Garland said the civil investigation will examine whether the Minneapolis police have engaged in excessive force or discriminatory conduct or unlawfully abused those with mental health illness or physical disabilities. He indicated Justice Department lawyers will also review tactics authorities used against protesters, including tear gas and other less-than-lethal munitions, in the mass street demonstrations that erupted in the city after Floyd’s death.
The impact of these federal investigations and the resulting reform agreements is mixed. In 2015, an investigative report by the Washington Post and PBS found that in half of the police departments the outlets examined that were operating under such oversight, use of force by police officers actually increased. That they’re insufficient is a fact that Gupta acknowledged last year in an interview. “They’re not perfect,” Gupta told PBS. She added, “Under no stretch of the imagination do they accomplish everything that one would hope. There’s backsliding that happens, there’s all kinds of outside factors that come in to take place but, for now, it is the most robust tool that exists, and there is no equivalent to the Justice Department being able to do it.”
But hey, at least we now have a DOJ whose leadership actually believes that something needs to be done to rein in police departments around the country. It’s far from enough, but it’s something.