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Kristen Clarke confirmed to lead Justice Department Civil Rights division

Kristen Clarke holds her hand up and her mom, Pansy Clarke, holds a Bible a as Vice President Kamala Harris swears her in at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI
Kristen Clarke holds her hand up and her mom, Pansy Clarke, holds a Bible a as Vice President Kamala Harris swears her in at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo

May 25 (UPI) -- The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Kristen Clarke as the first Black woman to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights division.

Clarke was confirmed by a 51-48 vote following an additional procedural step as Republicans objected to her nomination. Vice President Kamala Harris swore her in Tuesday evening as her mother, Pansy Clarke, held a Bible.

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A first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Jamaica West Indies, Clarke earned degrees from Harvard University and Columbia University School of Law before working as a trial attorney for the Civil Rights division's criminal and voting sections during the George W. Bush administration.

She also served as co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's voting rights group and most recently as president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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"Our nation is a healthier place when we respect the rights of all communities. In every role I've held, I have worked for and with people of all backgrounds -- regardless of race, national origin, religion and disability status," Clarke wrote in testimony for her confirmation hearing.

Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected to Clarke's nomination, raising concern that she is partisan and would only protect the rights of Americans she agrees with, saying she had criticized religious rights groups and called for defunding police.

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"I don't think she's the right person for this job at this time," Grassley said. "A nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division should be non-partisan, independent and up-front about her beliefs. Unfortunately, I think Ms. Clarke misses on all three marks."

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During her confirmation hearing, Clarke said she does not support defunding the police but does support "finding strategies to ensure that law enforcement can carry out their jobs more safely and effectively and channeling resources to emotional health treatment and other severely under-resourced areas."

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, accused Republicans of "a vicious smear campaign" against Clarke.

"They are afraid she will enforce our civil rights statutes, challenge discriminatory voting laws, combat systemic racism in policing and protect the LGBTQ community," she said.

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Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, told CNN he believes the opposition was racially motivated.

"No one else is being treated the way they are being treated in this moment," he said of President Joe Biden's nominees, many of whom are women and people of color. "When you compare that to the appointments that the former administration presented and how under-qualified they were for the positions especially for lifetime appointments to the federal bench, you can't draw any other conclusion but [that] it is racially motivated."

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Clarke's nomination comes one year after George Floyd was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, timing which Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called "particularly poignant and appropriate."

Biden pushed for Clarke's confirmation last month when Chauvin was convicted on murder charges in Floyd's death, saying she and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta would "root out the unconstitutional policing and reform our criminal justice system."

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Housing and Urban Development Secretary. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki (L) looks on as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Fudge, the first Black woman to lead the department in decades, speaks at a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. Photo by Michael Reynolds/UPI | License Photo

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