Vanita Gupta Confirmed as Associate Attorney General—The First Woman of Color to Assume the Role

Updated Friday, April 23 at 11:02 a.m. PT.

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On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Vanita Gupta to be associate attorney general of the United States. Gupta is the first woman of color to serve in the role. The Senate vote was narrow—51–49—and the tie-breaking vote was delivered by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who joined with Democrats to confirm the nominee.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Gupta previously held the title of acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department during the Obama administration. Since leaving the latter role in 2017, she worked as president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCR).

“Not only is Ms. Gupta the first woman of color to ever be nominated to the position, she is the first civil rights attorney ever to be nominated to the position, the third-ranking official in the Justice Department,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “That’s shocking, really. We never have had a former civil rights attorney serving in such a prominent serving in such a position of prominence at the Justice Department. In that sense alone, Ms. Gupta would bring a long overdue perspective to our federal law enforcement agency.”

Feminists applauded her historic nomination: Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), celebrated the confirmation of someone who “built her career fighting for civil rights and advancing justice for the most vulnerable people in our country.” And Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called her “the real deal.”

In the months leading up to her confirmation, top feminists and activists, including the LCCR and the NWLC, joined together in a coordinated push to confirm Clarke and Gupta. During Gupta’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, several women senators spoke on the floor to make the case for Gupta and Clarke’s confirmations.

“Americans across the nation are pushing, pulling, tugging with all their might to make sure that the United States lives up to our founding ideals of equality and justice for all,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

On Tuesday, the day before Gupta’s confirmation vote, President Biden spoke to the country in the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict. He specifically called for the swift confirmation of both Gupta and Kristen Clarke, his pick to lead the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, saying the two women would play an integral role serving in the Justice Department to “root out unconstitutional policing and reform our criminal justice system.” Earlier that day, the Senate had confirmed Lisa Monaco to be deputy attorney general by a vote of 98–2.

Vanita Gupta’s January Nomination

The day after the Capitol insurrection, on Thursday, Jan. 7, then-President-Elect Joe Biden and then-Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris named four new Justice Department nominees. Among them was associate attorney general nominee Vanita Gupta, who delivered the following remarks:

“By virtue of that name, that value of justice, we know the department carries a unique charge and North Star. It is the keeper of a sacred promise. It’s the promise of equal justice for all—hat no one is above the law. And when this promise is pursued with vigor, it brings light to our nation and serves as a beacon to the world. But when abandoned, we degrade our democracy, and sew the division that we’ve come to know all too well,” Gupta said.

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A Storied Career

Gupta was previously an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and then the ACLU, eventually serving as deputy legal director and the director of the Center for Justice. A graduate of Yale University and the New York University School of Law, she fought to challenge mass incarceration in the U.S. and wrongful drug evictions.

“[My parents] believed more than anything in the promise of America, and that loving this country brings with it the obligation to do the necessary work to make it better,” said Gupta in her Jan. 7 acceptance speech.

“Yesterday’s horrific events at the Capitol reminded us that our democracy cannot be taken for granted, that our nation has a long history of disinformation, white supremacist violence, mob violence. It also reminded us that our values and our constitution and our democracy, these do not protect themselves, it is people with courage who do that. And I am honored to return to a department that I will push every day for justice, accountability and equality under the law.”

Introducing Gupta, Biden commended her work under the Obama administration, beginning in 2014. He specifically highlighted the role she played in police reform as a leader of the Civil Rights Division, given the issue’s current prominence.

“She helped institute common sense police reforms to build greater equity, safety, and trust. She was commended for her work by both law enforcement and those advocating for changes in the criminal justice system. That’s a rare achievement. And it speaks volumes about her capacity to unite people in common purpose, which is what this is all about. Uniting the American people,” Biden said.

Gupta concluded with a John Lewis quote to guide her time spent serving the public: “Democracy is not a state; it is an act.”

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About and

Sophie Dorf-Kamienny is a junior at Tufts University studying sociology and community health. She is a Ms. contributing writer, and was formerly an editorial fellow, research fellow and assistant editor of social media. You can find her on Twitter at @sophie_dk_.
Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.