Kristen Clarke Is the Leader We Need at the Civil Rights Division

Media 05.12.21

More than four months ago, President Biden announced his choice to lead the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice: Kristen Clarke. When Clarke — then serving as president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — took the stage in Wilmington, Del., she reaffirmed the federal government’s important role in protecting the civil rights of all people in America. 

“We are at a crossroads,” Clarke said. “If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, we will turn the page on hate and close the door on discrimination by enforcing our federal civil rights laws.”

Clarke would be the first woman confirmed and first Black woman ever to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights, and our nation needs her in that position to lead the enforcement of our civil rights laws. With ongoing efforts to restrict the freedom to vote, an increase in hate crimes, police violence in communities across the nation, rampant attacks on LGBTQ people and on trans youth in particular, and other attempts to undermine civil rights and democracy, Clarke’s confirmation is critically important and urgent.

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Clarke made clear that she is the civil rights champion our nation needs leading the Civil Rights Division today.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: The voting restrictions being contemplated by many states, which DOJ is currently powerless to stop, would make voting harder for both Democratic and Republican voters. A recently proposed bill in Arizona enforcing an earlier deadline for mail-in ballots would have nullified more Republican ballots than Democratic ballots during the 2020 election.

Can you explain why restoring the DOJ’s power to oversee and stop harmful changes to voting procedures is in the interest of the American people of all parties?

CLARKE: I had the privilege and honor of sitting above the Senate floor in 2006 for the 98-0 vote to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. I know that there are six members of this committee who were there for that vote, including yourself, Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Grassley, and Senator Cornyn.

I believe that bipartisan support for voting rights is something that we should continue to aspire to. We know that ongoing voting discrimination remains a real problem in our country and the Voting Rights Act has proven to be one of our most powerful tools passed by this body, by the Senate, to help in the effort to ensure that eligible Americans have full access to the ballot.

In response to a question from Senator Josh Hawley attempting to distort Clarke’s record on religious liberty, she reaffirmed her commitment to upholding the rights of every community.

CLARKE: I ran a religious rights unit at the New York attorney general’s office. I know about religious discrimination and have fought it throughout my career. I’ve stood up to neo-Nazis. I’ve spoken out when we’ve seen attacks on our houses of worship. And senator, you have my commitment that if confirmed to the role I will continue to do just that: Stand up for religious liberty and fight religious discrimination at every turn.

SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR: We know that we’ve had hundreds of voter suppression bills be introduced across the country since the last election. Could you briefly talk about your top priorities for voting rights when you get — what I hope very much you will get this job.

CLARKE: Thank you so much, senator. President Biden, Attorney General Garland have talked about the importance of the right to vote and I will follow their lead in ensuring that the Civil Rights Division, if I am confirmed, is using the tools in its arsenal: the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Citizens Voting Act, to ensure that eligible Americans have access to the ballot in our country.

SENATOR MAZIE HIRONO: I’d like to ask you, Ms. Clarke, based on your experience, what do you think should be done to address the continuing incidents of hate crimes against the AAPI community?

CLARKE: Thank you, senator. I’m deeply concerned about the rise in hate that we are seeing, particularly targeting the Asian American Pacific Islander community in our country. The Justice Department has at its disposal the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Fair Housing Act, and other tools in its arsenal to help stand up and confront this hate.

We need better data tracking. New York City is one of the few places that’s tracking data impacting the AAPI community. And we know that in March and April of 2020, there were as many anti-Asian hate crimes in that two month period as there were in the previous four years combined. And we benefit from stronger data collection to understand where these issues are most stark so that we can really focus law enforcement resources on ensuring the safety of the AAPI community. But I agree, senator, that this is a crisis that warrants all of our attention.

SENATOR JON OSSOFF: This week, yet again, the nation is grappling with the reality that, in particular, unarmed Black men are subjected to violence at the hands of the state. Another young Black man shot to death by a law enforcement officer. How will you use the power of this office to end extrajudicial killings of American citizens by law enforcement?

CLARKE: Thank you, senator. The Civil Rights Division has been empowered by Congress to investigate unconstitutional conduct by law enforcement. And we know that this is a real and ongoing challenge that we face. The division has the ability to open pattern and practice investigations into police departments, jails, or other institutions that may be engaged in unconstitutional conduct. There’s 18 USC 242, which is one tool that can be used to promote accountability of law enforcement officers who use force without basis and in an unconstitutional way.

But Attorney General Garland has talked about the other tools in the division’s arsenal and I agree that in addition we have to think about training and technical assistance and grantmaking as other tools to help promote improvements in this incredibly important area.

SENATOR JON OSSOFF: Georgia recently passed what is now an infamous law restricting access to the ballot, slashing early voting opportunities and runoff elections, closing down access to ballot drop boxes at hours convenient for working class people. And as has been discussed, in this hearing, the Shelby County v. Holder decision, which eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, has removed the preclearance requirement that the Civil Rights Division would execute, requiring local and state authorities to secure preclearance from the Department of Justice before making such changes to election procedures and election laws.

Do you agree that it is vital that Congress restore what will be your authority, should you be confirmed, to preclear changes to voting laws and voting procedures to ensure that there is not racial or partisan targeting and that abusive election laws do not restrict access to the ballot?

CLARKE: Thank you, senator. History has shown that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been a powerful tool in combating and deterring ongoing voting discrimination. And I know that this body has taken up the question through the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act. And I know that that process has involved looking at the current picture of ongoing voting discrimination in our country. If confirmed, I look forward to providing support and being a resource for the House and Senate as it considers modifying Section 4 so that we can reinstate the Section 5 preclearance provision, which again historically has been such a powerful tool in beating back voting discrimination in our country.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: So my friend, my partner, the partner of people on both sides of the aisle that has helped make this nation more just — I am so grateful for you. And I want to ask you as your last inquisitor, for the record of the United States of America, for history, for those that may come on a generation from now and want to read about this hallowed and historic committee, is there anything you would like to say in your final remarks?

CLARKE: Thank you so much, senator. I’m humbled. I think many people struggle to figure out what their calling is. And I feel blessed that I figured out what my calling is at an incredibly young age. And I’ve proceeded through life with a kind of laser focus on using the opportunities that I have been given to give back to those less fortunate.

I feel blessed to wake up, to do work each and every day, that allows me to do just that: To stand up for our nation’s most vulnerable communities — to close those gaps between the haves and the have-nots. I do this work with my son in mind, often. I think about him, a young Black teen, and the future that lies ahead for him.

And my hope is that the work I do every day helps to tear down a wall here or wall there, that might make the path a little easier for him and for all kids like him. I’m humbled to be sitting in this chair. And I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the Senate will give me the opportunity to serve and to work alongside Attorney General Garland to help make real the promise of equal justice under law for all. Thank you very much, senator.

Join us to tell the Senate to confirm Kristen Clarke to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights so she can get to work enforcing our nation’s federal civil rights laws. CLICK HERE to urge your senators to #ConfirmClarke now.