• The Star Staff

Biden’s pick for Justice Dept. No. 3 wins backing of law enforcement


By Katie Benner


When the Obama administration convened a meeting in 2015 to discuss its investigation into police abuses in Ferguson, Missouri, some officials were puzzled to see conservative activist Grover Norquist in attendance, and even more surprised to learn that he was the guest of Vanita Gupta, a Justice Department official known for her work with progressive legal groups.


The department had found that nearly one-third of Ferguson’s city budget was funded by police fees and that officers were encouraged to raise revenue through tickets and fines.

Norquist helped create a plan to cap the fees’ contribution to the budget, helping discourage tactics that had deepened the divide between residents and the police.


“Vanita brought me in,” Norquist said. “She was capable of reaching out and working together to get progress, even if that meant some conservative would get credit for doing something good.”


Now Gupta is President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as the associate attorney general, the Justice Department’s No. 3 official responsible for overseeing the lawyers who defend the administration in court; issues including antitrust law, the environment and taxes; and funding allocations to local law enforcement departments nationwide.


Gupta, 46, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday for her confirmation hearing, along with Lisa Monaco, Biden’s nominee to be deputy attorney general, the department’s No. 2 official.


Monaco, 53, is a national security expert who began her career at the Justice Department as a federal prosecutor who worked on the Enron task force, and later served as an FBI official and head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.


While both nominees have submitted letters of support from a broad, bipartisan coalition of former department officials and law enforcement groups, some Republicans have already signaled that they will oppose Gupta. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said on Twitter last month that she had taken “dangerous, radical positions,” an assertion that police and sheriffs groups have blunted.


Gupta’s approach to criminal justice and policing issues has won her the support of more than a dozen law enforcement organizations nationwide — including the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Major Cities Chiefs and the International Association of Chiefs of Police — as well as backing from across the political spectrum, including from conservative stalwarts like Koch Industries and Norquist.


“I have known and worked with Ms. Gupta for several years, and have been extraordinarily impressed by her seriousness, her honesty and her capacity to engage in fruitful and productive dialogue regarding policing and criminal justice,” David J. Mahoney, the president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said in a letter to the Judiciary Committee.


“She possesses immense credibility among law enforcement leaders and community leaders,” he added. “She is an effective communicator and a bridge builder.”


Gupta has drawn attacks from the Judicial Crisis Network, a high-profile conservative legal group closely associated with the Trump administration. Its primary attack ad shows images of violence during last year’s racial justice protests and implies that Gupta “supports defunding the police.”


Gupta has said that she does not support defunding the police. Asked for comment, a Justice Department spokeswoman referred back to the letters of support for Gupta by police officials and sheriffs.


The Judicial Crisis Network campaign, standing in opposition to the support of Gupta by mainstream law enforcement groups, shows a split among some conservatives over their willingness to work with the Biden administration on issues like criminal justice reform that have had bipartisan support. Former President Donald Trump signed a broad overhaul of the criminal justice system in 2018 that expanded job training and early-release programs and modified sentencing laws.


The Judicial Crisis Network is run by Carrie Severino, who emerged as a key voice urging the Trump administration to install more social conservatives in the federal courts. She and her husband, Roger Severino, are one of Washington’s most influential conservative couples.


“It seems to me they made a strategic decision that ‘weak on crime,’ despite being blatantly false, was a better way to fire up the Trump base,” said Tom Carter, who worked on religious liberty cases with Roger Severino and with a group that worked closely with the Judicial Crisis Network.


Carrie Severino did not respond to an email seeking comment. Roger Severino said that he and his wife keep their work lives separate, and that he learned about the Judicial Crisis Network campaign against Gupta from news reports. He had no comment on it.


While the Judicial Crisis Network is not known for taking a strong stance on policing issues, it is little surprise that Carrie Severino would oppose Gupta’s nomination. The group has pushed for the Supreme Court to rule against measures that would expand gay rights, and Gupta was the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the final years of the Obama administration while the department broadly supported extending those protections. The Trump administration pared back those protections, but that could be reassessed under the Biden administration.