Vanita Gupta: The Civil Rights Division Head Libertarians Could Love?


A drug-war denouncing, prison-reform crusading, longtime civil-rights attorney is President Obama's new pick to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. Venita Gupta, 39, will take over as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights next week, and the White House will likely propose making it permanent within the next few months, according to The Washington Post.

Gupta has called the drug war "disastrous", the asset forfeiture program "broken", and police militarization "out of control". She supports marijuana decriminalization and eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing. "It's time for states to end the costly criminalization of marijuana and recalibrate sentencing laws so that the punishment actually fits the crime as opposed to a politician's reelection agenda," she wrote in a September op-ed for CNN. 

The civil rights division—which has been without a permanent head for more than a year—was created in 1957 "to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans" and investigates claims of discrimination based on race, sex, disability, religion, etc. It's the division that handles voting rights cases, helped end segregation in the South in the '60s, and is currently looking into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. The division's "about" section, however, contains words that will to strike terror into any libertarian's heart: "Since its establishment, the Division has grown dramatically in both size and scope…".

Throughout the past few decades, its work has been largely unimpressive. "Under President George W. Bush, the division was plagued by scandal, largely due to leadership that was intent on keeping 'commies' and 'crazy libs' off the staff," writes George Washington University law profesor Michael Selmi in Politico magazine. In the Obama years,

… the nature of the cases brought by the division has not differed much from the Bush administration. In some areas the number of filings in traditional civil rights cases appears to be down—in some areas down significantly. The vast majority of the cases the division pursues involve individual victims of discrimination and very few major reform-oriented cases have been filed over the last six years. 

Under Eric H. Holder, however, the department has initiated double the number of investigations into police departments than it did under his predecssors. Gupta's record sparks hope that this focus on civil rights abuses perpetuated by the state will continue. At the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Gupta served as deputy legal director and director of the organization's Center for Justice. Before that she was an attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Program and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Her work includes aiding federal and state reform initiatives concerning drug policy, immigration, policing, sentencing, prisons, and overincarceration.

In her first case, Gupta helped overturn the drug convictions and lengthy sentences of 38 defendants in Tulia, Texas. This year, Gupta has been working with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and others on the Clemency Project 2014, which aims "to restore the integrity" of the federal clemency process.

Gupta is also known for being able to work across partisan divides. At the ACLU, Gupta was able to work together with the American Legislative Exchange Council—a conservative group that hasn't always been ACLU-friendly—on sentencing reform. Grover Norquist told the Post that she "has played a strong role in the left-right cooperation in criminal justice issues," and the National Rifle Association's former president David Keene said she "both listens to and works with people from all perspectives to accomplish real good."