The Washington Post
Hearing to fill civil rights post focuses on police funding
Justice Dept. nominee, GOP senators spar over resource allocation
Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee to run the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told senators Wednesday that she supports his efforts to invest an additional $300 million for local law enforcement agencies and pledged to find common ground with police if she is confirmed to the job.
Clarke, 46, testified during a contentious confirmation hearing that she does not support the push from Black Lives Matter to broadly defund police departments. Under intensive questioning from Republican lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Clarke said she has advocated for reallocating limited existing funding to bolster mental health care and other social services to help alleviate pressure on overburdened police officers.
“I know from talking to and working with law enforcement that they want this help,” said Clarke, a civil rights lawyer who began her career two decades ago as a line attorney in the department’s civil rights division. “They want to see more resources committed to meeting the mental health and emotional health needs of our communities. I have talked to sheriffs who say their jails are being transformed into mental health detention centers.”
Clarke’s defense of her positions on policing, voting rights and issues around religious liberty dominated her joint hearing with Todd S. Kim, a former solicitor general for D.C.’S city government whom Biden has nominated to lead the Justice Department’s environment division. GOP senators spent most of their time questioning Clarke, while Democrats rallied to her defense, with far less focus on Kim, who appeared to have some bipartisan support.
Ahead of the hearing, Republicans had criticized Clarke over her advocacy in favor of expanding voting access to minorities, her denunciation of former president Donald Trump and her push to reform police departments that have been accused of abusive tactics that have led to the killings of Black men. Conservatives have tried to paint her and civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta, who is awaiting a Senate vote over her nomination for the department’s No. 3 position, as radical and extreme.
Several GOP senators asked Clarke about an op-ed she wrote for Newsweek last summer, during the mass protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In the essay titled “I Prosecuted Police Killings. Defund the Police — But Be Strategic,” Clarke cited a “unifying call” from Black Lives Matter to “defund the police,” and she suggested reallocating funding to help improve social services.
“We must invest less in police and more in social workers,” she wrote. Clarke said that in the past, “some proposed policing reforms have failed to have meaningful impact or staying power due to lack of political will and the corrosive influence of some police unions. Police departments today have too much contact with communities on issues they were never equipped to address. We can fix this.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Clarke told lawmakers that Newsweek editors wrote the headline, which she said “does not align well with the piece.”
“I don’t support taking away resources from police and putting the community in harm’s way,” she said.
But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-tex.) expressed skepticism. “I find that astonishing and frankly, Ms. Clarke, not credible. Three [paragraphs] in your article you begin with the words, ‘ We must invest less in police.’ How do you square those words?”
Clarke responded that she wrote the essay without “the power of the purse,” emphasizing that she endorses Biden’s efforts to bolster police funding, as well as more money for social services. “I wrote about how to allocate a limited pool of resources in a more effective way,” she said.
Republicans also criticized Clarke over an editorial she wrote as a student at Harvard University in 1994 that sought to rebut claims made in “The Bell Curve” that tied intelligence to race. In the piece, Clarke recited research by some Black scholars that suggested Blacks are intellectually superior, a point she reiterated Wednesday was intended to be “satirical.”
Some classmates at the time spoke out in her defense.
Democrats rushed to support Clarke. Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) opened the hearing by saying that some Republicans “are so threatened by the prospects of a revitalized civil rights division that they have already engaged in baseless attacks on this extremely well-qualified nominee.”
Clarke has won support for her nomination from several police organizations, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
In a letter released Wednesday, dozens of Clarke’s colleagues in the New York attorney general’s office wrote that she “is motivated by a deep and abiding commitment to equal justice under the law and the belief that all Americans are entitled to fundamental dignity. And at a moment when civil rights are under attack, Kristen’s experience and leadership are precisely what we need at DOJ.”