Vanita Gupta.
AP
By Maya Rhodan
October 16, 2014

President Obama has tapped the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Vanita Gupta, to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday. In a statement, Holder praised Gupta’s “trailblazing work” as a civil rights lawyer, and said she “has spent her entire career working to ensure that our nation lives up to its promise of equal justice for all.”

Strongly supported by the left, Gupta has also won unexpected praise from conservatives normally critical of the Obama administration and Holder’s leadership of the Justice Department. Conservatives including Grover Norquist and former president of the National Rifle Association David Keene are among her supporters.

“We come from a different side of spectrum than ACLU,” says Marc Levin, policy director for the conservative criminal justice reform organization Right on Crime which has an informal relationship with the ACLU. “But, I’ve found her interested in identifying areas where we can work together.”

Gupta started her career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), where she won a challenge to reverse the convictions of a group of black men who were wrongfully convicted of selling drugs in Texas. In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned the defendants. At the ACLU she led a lawsuit against a Texas immigration detention facility that led to widespread detention policy reform.

As outrage has erupted in Ferguson, Mo. over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, Gupta and the ACLU have been among the loudest voices calling for accountability and transparency from the police department. Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF, said Wednesday that Gupta has “expertise in bringing law enforcement and communities of color to the same table, in pursuit of common goals of fairness and accountability.

Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Love says Gupta’s appointment is a “happy confirmation of the Obama Administration’s appreciation of the relationship between civil rights and the criminal justice system.”

Gupta may prove a less divisive choice than Obama’s prior nominee for the civil rights post, Debo Adegbile. His nomination was blocked in Congress because he once represented death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. The Obama administration stood by their nomination of Adegbile, but he later withdrew and returned to private practice.

Gupta has her own legal history, however. She made her name in part by fighting to reform the nation’s drug laws, including embracing broad decriminalization of some drugs. In an opinion piece for the New York Times last September, she called for the elimination of the mandatory minimum sentences that have left many first-time offenders locked up for life. She supports of decriminalizing marijuana, the criminalization of which she has said has contributed to our nation’s overcrowded prison system.

“Those who seek a fairer criminal justice system, unclouded by racial bias, must at a minimum demand that the government eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, which tie judges’ hands; rescind three-strikes laws, which often make no distinction between, say, armed assault and auto theft; amend ‘truth in sentencing’ statutes, which prohibit early release for good behavior; and recalibrate drug policies, starting with decriminalization of marijuana possession and investment in substance-abuse prevention and treatment,” Gupta wrote in the New York Times.

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