Joe Biden’s nominee for the third-ranking role in the Department of Justice was confirmed by a narrow majority in a divided Senate, after Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski crossed party lines to support Vanita Gupta’s nomination.
Ms Gupta will oversee civil rights and law enforcement reforms critical to the White House agenda.
Vice President Kamala Harris joined the Senate on Wednesday in the event she had to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm Ms Gupta as associate US Attorney General.
In a vote one day after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty for the murder of George Floyd, the Senate confirmed the nation’s next leading law enforcement watchdog by a vote of 51-49, becoming the first-ever civil rights attorney in the role.
Ms Gupta, who leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was previously chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Barack Obama.
With the exception of Ms Murkowski, Republicans uniformly objected to her nomination. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that Gupta is a “radical” who “levied attacks” against members of the Senate.
“I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to a woman who I believe has demonstrated throughout her professional career to be deeply, deeply committed to matters of justice,” Senator Murkowski said, explaining her vote.
“Not only is Ms Gupta the first woman of colour to ever be nominated to the position, she is the first civil rights attorney ever to be nominated to the position,” Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
“That’s shocking, really,” he added. “We never have had a former civil rights attorney serving in such a position of prominence at the Justice Department.”
Kristen Clarke – appointed to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division – is awaiting Senate confirmation.
If confirmed, she also would be the first woman and the first Black woman to lead the division since its creation in 1957.
Their nominations follow a rise in hate crimes, threats to voting rights and federal law enforcement warnings about the rise in racist violence, white supremacism and domestic terror plots, as well as heightened scrutiny into the police killings of Black Americans and other law enforcement misconduct.
Last month, a Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked by a vote of 11-11 to advance Ms Gupta’s nomination.
On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general, but her nomination did not draw much scrutiny from Republicans – Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul were the only “no” votes.
But Republican lawmakers have argued that the appointments of Ms Gupta and Ms Clarke – two women of colour – will upend American policing and strengthen civil rights and voter protections that Republicans across the US have sought to undo.
The Biden administration has overturned a Trump-era policy that blocked federal consent decrees into local law enforcement.
On Wednesday, US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department will investigate the Minneapolis Police Department to determine whether it has a pattern of using excessive force in arrests or at protests, and whether police officers engage in discriminatory conduct.
The investigation is separate from a federal civil rights probe into Mr Floyd’s killing.
Ms Clarke – a longtime civil rights advocate – emerged as a frequent critic of Donald Trump’s administration as head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which sued the former president over challenges to voting rights, immigration, the use of force against protesters outside the White House, and changes to the US Census.
While defending results in the wake of the 2020 presidential election that the former president sought to overturn with the false narrative of a “stolen” election, she was repeatedly threatened with racist attacks by his supporters.