Meet the woman spearheading the federal probe of Ferguson

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Vanita Gupta. (Kay Shaw/NAACP Legal Defense Fund)

Vanita Gupta was only weeks out of law school in 2001 when she began looking into a strange series of drug busts in a tiny West Texas ranch town named Tulia.

In 1999, a third of the town’s black population had been ensnared in the biggest drug bust the Texas Panhandle had ever seen. Forty-six people, almost all of them poor African-Americans who had prior run-ins with the law, were convicted on charges of cocaine dealing and sentenced to years in prison based solely on the testimony of a former rodeo clown turned undercover cop who had little experience investigating narcotics.

Gupta, then 26, had just joined the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and she began assembling a team of attorneys and civil rights groups to look into the drug arrests, which didn’t smell right to her. It was her first case as an attorney. Two years later, a Texas judge overturned many of the convictions, calling the cop’s testimony not credible. After the officer was found guilty of perjury, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned most of the defendants whose convictions had not been previously overturned.

It was one of the highest-profile cases of racial injustice in recent memory, and it branded Gupta, so young she still resembled a college student, a rising star in the legal world. “Don’t be surprised if she ends up on the Supreme Court someday,” the Houston Chronicle mused in 2003. And Hollywood took notice too, optioning a book about the Tulia case. Tentatively cast as Gupta: Halle Berry.

In the decade since, Gupta has gone on to become one of the best-known civil rights attorneys in the country — leading the charge on prison reform, immigration law, police overreach and other issues.

Chief Gorden E. Eden,Jr. speaks as U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez and Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta listen. Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMA Wire)

Now the 39-year-old lawyer, praised as a trailblazer on civil rights issues, is set to play a major role in how the Justice Department proceeds in its ongoing federal investigation into the events surrounding the shooting of an unnamed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., last August.

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder named Gupta as the acting head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, with the expectation that she will soon be nominated for the job permanently. The job puts her at the center of other politically sensitive issues, including the department’s lawsuits against Texas and North Carolina for controversial voter ID laws that Justice officials contend are in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

But it's how DOJ proceeds in the Ferguson investigation that is sure to be an early test for Gupta. A local grand jury declined Monday to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. But the Justice Department is still looking into whether Wilson, who is white, should face civil rights charges in the case. At the same time, DOJ officials are continuing a broader inquiry into the widely criticized practices of the police department in Ferguson, a mostly black suburb of St. Louis that has had tensions for years with police and community officials who are largely white.

Gupta is already well acquainted with the issues in Ferguson. Before joining the Obama administration, she was the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she spearheaded the group’s efforts on Ferguson. She was a co-author of a study, launched months earlier, looking into the militarization of local police departments — an issue that garnered new attention after violent protests erupted between the Ferguson Police Department and people angry over the death of Brown.

“What Ferguson has laid bare is something that communities of color, kind of at the target of the war on drugs, have known for the last several decades, that policing in their communities is often highly militarized,” Gupta said in an interview with New York's WNYC radio in August. “The question will be that once the cameras leave Ferguson, once the Ferguson hashtag is no longer trending on Twitter, is there going to be the political will and resolve to actually address what has been a very alarming situation in local and state police departments around the country? Because there’s no question that this has really gone out of control.”

Gupta brings an interesting personal perspective to her new job. Born in Philadelphia, she is the daughter of Indian immigrants and spent much of her early childhood in England and France, where her father worked as a business manager for a multinational chemical company.

While she has told reporters that she’s not sure when she developed an interest in social justice issues, she’s also recounted vivid memories of a childhood in which she experienced discrimination firsthand.

In one incident in a London restaurant, she and her family, including a grandmother who was visiting from India, were the targets of slurs by skinheads who called them “Pakis” and threw french fries at them until they left. “It was just a very vivid demonstration of what it’s like to grow up as a person of color in a very troubled time,” Gupta told the New York Times in a 2003 profile.

She later attended Yale, studying history and women’s studies, prompting her family to tease her about what she was going to do with her life. But that soon became clear to her parents when, in 1996, Gupta, dressed in her graduation gown, skipped her commencement ceremony to demonstrate with Yale employees fighting for fair wages. She later graduated from New York University’s School of Law.

Recipent of the 2004 Reebok Human Rights Award, Vanita Gupta, successfully orchestrated an extraordinary campaign to fight racism in the justice system by spearheading the legal battle to win the release and pardon of 35 African Americans falsely accused and convicted of drug-related crimes in Texas. (Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage via Getty Images)

In Gupta, the Obama administration sees someone who has not only the smarts and legal experience for the job but also the pragmatism to work across aisles. She is expected to be able to find common ground with conservatives on criminal-justice reform, one of the few policy areas where Democrats and Republicans have been able to work together. She’s won praise from staunch conservatives including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and former National Rifle Association head David Keene, who told the Washington Post that she “listens to and works with people from all perspectives to accomplish real good.”

While Gupta’s name has not been formally put before Capitol Hill lawmakers, her confirmation proces would presumably be easier than Obama’s last nominee. In August, the Senate rejected another NAACP veteran, Debo Adegbile, who was strongly opposed by Republicans and some Democrats because of his involvement in the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a controversial prisoner who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been without a permanent leader since June 2013, when its former head, Tom Perez, became Obama’s labor secretary.

On Oct. 31, just days into her new job, Gupta made her first public appearance on behalf of the administration, appearing in Albuquerque, N.M., to announce a “landmark settlement” between the Justice Department and the city’s police department after an investigation found that officers had been using excessive force against civilians. Under the agreement, the city accepted an independent monitor to oversee reforms for the next two years and agreed to adopt new policies aimed at easing conflict with the community.

The investigation offered hints of how the Justice Department might pursue a civil rights case against the Ferguson Police Department, which has faced similar claims from the community.

“Constitutional policing is key to building trust between police departments and the communities they serve, and trust is, of course, key to ensuring public and officer safety,” Gupta said in announcing the agreement.

It was a long way from Tulia, the case that launched her career. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News in 2005, Gupta spoke of that controversial episode not as an isolated problem but as something that was happening in cities all over the country. And it was pursuing that issue, she said, that made her feel alive.

“Civil rights work is what gets me up in the morning and makes me feel like I can live a meaningful life,” she said.

Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.