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Kristen Clarke's Civil Rights Record Led Her To Barrier-Breaking DOJ Nomination

Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by then-President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 7. Her confirmation hearing is on Wednesday.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by then-President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 7. Her confirmation hearing is on Wednesday.

Updated April 14, 2021 at 2:22 PM ET

Kristen Clarke grew up in public housing in Brooklyn, as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.

Now, she's in line to become the first woman and the first woman of color to formally lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division since it was created in 1957.

That's if she can get through a closely divided Senate, where Republicans have signaled they will put up a fight.

Clarke appeared before the Judiciary Committee Wednesday, when lawmakers assessed her record.

It's a long one that begins 21 years ago at the Justice Department, where she prosecuted dozens of cases; to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she defended voting rights; and onto the New York Attorney General's Office, where she played a role in settlements for women who faced mistreatment on the job.

"This is what Kristen Clarke has been doing her entire life," said Taylor Dumpson, a law student who interned for Clarke at the nonprofit group called the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Dumpson also became a legal client. In 2017, she was the first Black woman to serve as student government president at the American University in Washington, D.C. On her first day in office, a masked person hung racist symbols on her door. Then, a few days later, an online attack against her began.

When the Justice Department's criminal investigation stalled, Dumpson had another idea: suing the neo-Nazis who targeted her online. The case, she said, was a success.

"We were able to set precedent and it was the first time that a court had found that online harassment can interfere with someone's use of public accommodation," Dumpson said.

Dumpson said that experience demonstrates Clarke knows how to use the law to protect people's civil rights — and hold wrongdoers to account.

For the last several years, Clarke has been working to elevate the voices of survivors, bringing together police chiefs and prosecutors to hear their stories.

Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was murdered in a vehicular assault in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, has participated in some of those training sessions.

Bro said Clarke helped push the Justice Department to charge her daughter's murder as a federal hate crime. This month, she's pushing legislation after Heyer's death exposed gaps in the way local police departments report those cases.

Clarke also played a role in one of the most important voting rights cases in a generation. She helped argue the landmark case Shelby County v. Holder.

Clarke won at the lower court, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually voted 5 to 4 to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that allowed the Justice Department to monitor electoral changes in regions with a history of discrimination.

Ernest Montgomery, a city council member from Alabama, had intervened in the case. He said the DOJ role in voting rights, which Clarke would manage in her new job, can't be overstated.

"What I learned was, I realized how important it is to have some oversight, in what's going on with voting issues," Montgomery said. "I have no doubt in my mind she will represent all of the people fairly and justly, she just seems to have that kind of personality and character."

But conservative media figures, including Tucker Carlson of Fox News, have launched a campaign against Clarke. They cite her writings as a 19-year-old and her work in putting together a conference that featured so-called political prisoners during her college days.

"Kristen Clarke doesn't believe in civil rights," Carlson said on his show earlier this year. "She believes in identity politics."

Clarke is familiar to Carlson's viewers. In recent years, she appeared on the program to clash with Carlson about a lack of diversity among former President Donald Trump's judicial nominees and voter ID laws.

Some of those clashes repeated themselves at Clarke's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.