President Obama will nominate top ACLU lawyer Vanita Gupta to run the often controversial Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, but will delay a formal announcement until after the midterm elections, according to sources familiar with the administration’s discussions.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Wednesday that Gupta would take over the post immediately as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, a somewhat unusual move for someone who is about to be officially nominated for such a post.
By announcing her appointment as acting head rather than proceeding with a formal nomination at this time, the Obama administration appears to be trying to avoid potential controversy in the November elections.
In a similar move Tuesday, administration sources said the White House would not nominate anyone to replace Holder, who plans to step down, until after the Nov. 4 elections.
Obama’s previous nominee for the civil rights job, Debo Adegbile, was rejected by the Senate in March after some Democrats joined Republicans in opposing his appointment because of his previous legal representation of a prisoner convicted of killing a policeman.
Gupta is also likely to run into opposition, though, unlike Adegbile, she has support from some prominent conservatives, including anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and David Keene, former president of the National Rifle Assn.
Gupta, like Adegbile, is a former lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. At the ACLU, she rose to become deputy legal director. Former colleagues describe her as a “rock star” among civil rights and criminal justice lawyers. In her first case, she won pardons for 35 mostly African American defendants, whose convictions she showed were based on falsified evidence from a police officer.
Her duties as head of the Civil Rights Division will include supervising the Justice Department investigation into the August shooting death of unarmed African American Michael Brown, 18, by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo.
Asked about Gupta on Wednesday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said through an aide that he “looks forward to reviewing her record and learning more about her.”