Civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that she would abandon some of the harsh partisan rhetoric she used over the past four years if confirmed for the No. 3 position at the Justice Department.
Committee Republicans aired their concerns at the confirmation hearing for Gupta, who as president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights often was critical of former President Donald Trump, his judicial picks and committee Republicans themselves.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, questioned how her public persona of “strident liberal advocacy” would affect her work in a role that includes overseeing enforcement of the nation’s antitrust, civil rights and tax laws.
Grassley said Gupta’s tweets painted Republicans with a broad brush, called the party’s national convention last year “three nights of racism, xenophobia and outrageous lies” and attacked the character of Trump-appointed judges who would handle cases that the Justice Department files with her name on them.
“Judges have thick skins, but the fact is that her name is going to be on hundreds, maybe thousands, of briefs before those judges whose character she frequently maligned,” Grassley said.
Gupta told the committee that she regretted the harsh tone she used at times over the past few years and if she is confirmed, “you won’t be hearing that kind of rhetoric from me.”
“Perhaps, I think, the rhetoric has gotten quite harsh over the past few years and I have fallen prey to it,” Gupta said. “I wish I could take it back. I can’t. But what I commit to you, and ask that you do, is look at my lifelong record.”
Gupta’s comments echo what President Joe Biden said he wants to do across the government during his administration. And they come a few weeks after support for Neera Tanden’s nomination to be White House budget chief floundered and then stalled because of prior comments about lawmakers.
Chairman Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and other committee Democrats criticized what they called a dark-money smear campaign against Gupta that includes false claims when it comes to her position on law enforcement funding, and Durbin highlighted letters of support from “virtually every major law enforcement organization in the country.”
Gupta would be the first civil rights lawyer and the first woman of color to serve in the position. She led the department’s Civil Rights Division for three years in the Obama administration and worked across party lines on an overhaul to the criminal justice system, often a charged and difficult area.
“I’ve seen in your work the profile of someone who is pragmatic, principled, a relationship builder in search of solutions,” said Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said Gupta had an “almost unbroken record of partisan culture war” in her résumé, while Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, also of Texas, said her record “is one of an extreme partisan advocate” that doesn’t belong within the Justice Department’s leadership.
“As I look at your record on every single issue, the positions you’ve advocated for are on the extreme left, and you’ve demonstrated an intolerance for and hostility to anyone who disagrees with the far-left positions,” Cruz said.
Gupta responded that as a civil rights advocate, “my duty has been to enforce the Constitution, not enforce anyone’s political agenda, or partisan agenda.”
Democrats and Republicans often clash when it comes to how the Justice Department should enforce civil rights laws on voting, religious discrimination, affirmative action and more. The Justice Department already has reversed several Trump-era policies.
Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing also included Biden’s pick of Lisa Monaco to be deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position at DOJ. She appears to have bipartisan support for that role, as does Biden’s choice of Merrick Garland to be attorney general. Garland’s final confirmation floor vote could come as early as Wednesday.