Biden's pick for top U.S. civil rights lawyer, Kristen Clarke, faces fraught task

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announces Justice Department nominees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware
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Sarah N. Lynch
·3 min read
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By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke, is poised to take on the role at a fraught time in American history.

Clarke will face a Senate hearing this week as hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise, Republican-led state legislatures are advancing bills that voting-rights groups say would disenfranchise Black voters and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial facing a charge of murdering a Black man, George Floyd.

Clarke will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday alongside Todd Kim, Biden's nominee to lead the department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

Kim, like Clarke, previously worked in the Justice Department division he is now nominated to lead. Most recently, he served as a deputy counsel in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Former colleagues say Clarke's experience, both as a Justice Department lawyer and as executive director of a large civil rights organization, make her qualified to tackle the challenge.

"If you were inventing a nominee from scratch... you'd come up with Kristen or someone very, very close," said Justin Levitt, a former colleague who teaches law at Loyola Law School.

Clarke has spent a good chunk of her career advocating for voting rights issues.

Ernest Montgomery, a councilman in Calera, Alabama, said he was impressed by Clarke when he met her in 2010.

Montgomery was an intervener in Shelby County v. Holder, a 2010 voting rights case arising from a dispute over whether states and counties must seek preclearance, or approval, from the federal government before re-drawing voting districts. He got involved as a third-party advocate in the litigation after the city re-drew his district's lines, diluting the Black vote.

Clarke, then an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, represented him, arguing in support of requiring federal preclearance of redistricting as a crucial constitutional protection to root out discrimination against minority voters.

"She did a superb job," Montgomery said.

The lower courts sided with Clarke's view on preclearance, but in 2013 the Supreme Court reversed and gutted a core part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a move civil rights lawyers say made it easier to discriminate against voters of color.

Since 2016, Clarke has led the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The most intense time in that job arguably occurred around the 2020 presidential election, when former President Donald Trump refused to concede to Biden and made baseless claims of voter fraud.

"It was non-stop," Clarke's colleague with the Lawyer's Committee, Jon Greenbaum, said of the group's voting rights work in 2020. "It was high stakes."

Clarke's nomination is expected to dominate much of Wednesday's confirmation hearing, with some Republicans poised to pounce after conservative media launched a series of attacks on her dating back to her days as a student at Harvard University.

One has centered on comments in her college paper intended as parody about Black people having "greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities" in an effort to counter the controversial 1994 book "The Bell Curve," which made arguments linking race and intelligence.

Another group claimed without evidence that Clarke is anti-Semitic based on a speaker she invited to a college campus event decades ago, and that she "believes single black mothers raise criminals."

Clarke is a divorced, single Black mother, and her comments were about the challenges Black families face when trying to raise children without a father figure.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, in his confirmation hearing in February, sought to beat back some of the criticism.

"I do not believe that she is anti-Semitic," said Garland, who is Jewish. "I do not believe she is discriminatory in any sense."

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)