This is an especially historic Women’s History Month. Women —particularly women of color — are making history across the political spectrum. On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female, Black and Asian vice president of the United States. In the following weeks, the Biden-Harris administration put forward a record number of women for Cabinet and Cabinet-level positions, the majority of whom are women of color.
And soon, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from three exceptionally qualified women nominated to serve in top leadership positions at the Department of Justice: Lisa Monaco, nominee for deputy attorney general; Vanita Gupta, nominee for associate attorney general; and Kristen Clarke, nominee for assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.
Monaco is a national security expert who has both foreseen and led the response to some of the most pressing public safety issues of our time, including global pandemics, the rise of domestic terrorism and cybersecurity threats. As a former prosecutor, FBI counselor, assistant attorney general and White House national security official, she is arguably the most qualified individual ever nominated to this position and one who will be ready from Day One to help oversee the entirety of the Justice Department, from its law enforcement and national security components to those focused on ensuring environmental justice, combating monopolies and advancing civil rights.
Gupta would be the first civil rights lawyer and woman of color to serve as associate attorney general. As a former acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and leader of one of the largest civil rights organizations in the nation, she is ready to oversee the department’s work on voting rights, antitrust enforcement and criminal justice reform. Moreover, as a consensus builder, Gupta has proved she can form partnerships across partisan divides, something she has done time and again in the context of police reform.
Clarke, who would be the first Senate-confirmed woman and woman of color to head the Civil Rights Division, currently leads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and previously served in the Civil Rights Division and managed the civil rights bureau of the New York state attorney general’s office. At a time when, as the Department of Homeland Security stated last October, violent white supremacy is “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland,” Clarke’s impressive record as a civil rights attorney is what we need to defend against domestic extremism and reinvigorate the DOJ’s mission of civil rights enforcement.
These nominations are, collectively, a significant moment. However, this moment also calls on all of us to reflect on why these “firsts” are still happening centuries after the birth of our nation. Even now, these women – especially Gupta and Clarke – are facing blatantly false attacks from far-right politicians and political groups, despite receiving a broad and bipartisan range of support from law enforcement and civil rights organizations alike.
Some Republicans have painted them as radical, despite these women garnering bipartisan support and records of consensus building; claimed they support defunding the police, which is false; and criticized their past statements, despite having strongly supported President Donald Trump and numerous Trump nominees — many of whom were white males — who had themselves made controversial statements, speeches and social media posts.
These attacks against Gupta and Clarke are hypocritical and dishonest at best. At worst, they reflect an agenda of hostility toward the effective enforcement of voting and civil rights for all Americans.
And while Republicans criticize these well-qualified Justice Department veterans, they were silent while there was no Senate-confirmed associate attorney general for nearly three years during the Trump Administration.
If their intent is to confirm leaders with distinguished track records of public service, legal brilliance and the experience necessary to restore independence and integrity to the Department of Justice, they would push for swift confirmation. If their intent is otherwise, it only underscores the importance of confirming these career professionals.
Once Monaco, Gupta and Clarke are confirmed, they will work with Judge Merrick Garland, nominee to be the next attorney general, to restore integrity and independence at the department, combat white supremacy and domestic terrorism, boost morale of the dedicated career professionals, and build a more equitable justice system. It is my hope that these exceptional leaders will be confirmed on a bipartisan basis, as were numerous white male nominees before them.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin is a Democrat representing the state of Illinois. He chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and serves as the chamber’s majority whip.