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Justice Department's Civil Rights Division To Get Interim Leader


President Obama has filled a politically sensitive job at the Justice Department.


When the department examines voter ID laws the job falls to its civil rights division.

INSKEEP: That same division examines police use of force in Ferguson, Missouri.

MARTIN: This week the president named a new, temporary leader of that division. She will likely be nominated for Senate confirmation to hold the job permanently.

INSKEEP: She's a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Vanita Gupta's record stretches all the way back to Tulia, Texas, a crucible for racial justice that made national news here on NPR.


VANITA GUPTA: In 1999, dozens were arrested on drug crimes in the small, panhandle community. Thirty-eight people were convicted based on questionable evidence.

JOHNSON: It was Gupta's first case as a young lawyer with the storied NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and with the help of other civil rights advocates, Gupta helped those people get out of jail. Sherrilyn Ifill's president of the Legal Defense Fund.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Her work in that case first engaged her working directly with local communities and understanding the challenges that they face.

JOHNSON: She's followed Gupta's career for years.

IFILL: You know, given all of her experience of work in immigration cases and across the civil rights spectrum, she's perfectly suited for the job.

JOHNSON: Running the Civil Rights Unit at the Justice Department, even on acting basis, will put Gupta in charge of sensitive investigations. That includes the police force in Ferguson, Missouri, which is under fire for allegedly using excessive force and tactics that discriminate against minorities. She'll also oversee ongoing voting rights cases against Texas and North Carolina. Attorney General Eric Holder says he selected Gupta for the job in part because of her work reaching consensus with political conservatives, like efforts to win clemency for inmates incarcerated for long prison terms on drug charges. Here she is talking with NPR earlier this year about the change in that conversation.


GUPTA: I would've had to seriously pinch myself 10 years ago to think that criminal justice was going to be one of the Vanguard, bipartisan issues in 2014, but that's what it's become.

JOHNSON: But she also has a lighter side. A recent episode of "The Daily Show" poked fun at her work for people who argue police seize their money without due process.


JORDAN KLEPPER: But some people think there's something wrong with cops making you choose between your kids and your cash, like ACLU crybaby Vanita Gupta.

JOHNSON: Gupta played along.


KLEPPER: What would police officers have to gain by taking innocent people's stuff?

GUPTA: Money.

JOHNSON: Gupta's long record will be poured over by senators if she's nominated to lead the unit permanently - that includes statements she made in support of legalizing marijuana and others criticizing for-profit prison companies. A previous nominee, Debo Adegbile, got blocked by the Senate in part because of his appellate work for a man who killed a police officer. That made some in the administration leery of picking a civil rights veteran for the job, but by choosing Gupta they apparently overcame those concerns. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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