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Meet Vanita Gupta, the drug war critic Obama wants as his top civil rights lawyer

President Barack Obama will nominate Vanita Gupta, former ACLU laywer, to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.
President Barack Obama will nominate Vanita Gupta, former ACLU laywer, to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.

President Barack Obama will nominate Vanita Gupta, a top lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department, the Washington Post reported.

If confirmed by Congress, Gupta would become the first permanent assistant attorney general for civil rights in more than a year. She would oversee voting rights and civil rights investigations, including the ongoing investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department following the August 9 police shooting of Michael Brown.

During her time at the ACLU, Gupta criticized the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and racial biases in the criminal justice system. In one of her first cases for the ACLU, Gupta landed a settlement that significantly improved conditions at the T. Don Hutto immigrant detention center in Texas and led ultimately to the government closing the facility.

The nomination has already drawn some cross-party support from a bipartisan coalition of criminal justice reformers. Despite (or because of) that support, some of Gupta's positions will very likely draw criticism — her support for marijuana legalization and opposition to civil asset forfeiture in particular could rankle lawmakers who feel those policies are important weapons against crime and drug use. Gupta will also work on voter ID laws, which are currently drawing a great deal of media attention and partisan battles due to ongoing court challenges.

Here's a roundup on some of the positions Gupta has taken in the past, and what people are saying about her nomination.

What are Vanita Gupta's policy positions?

Ferguson protests police

Vanita Gupta has criticized the policies that led to this kind of police militarization. (Scott Olson / Getty Images News)

On race and criminal justice, including marijuana decriminalization? In a New York Times op-ed: "Those who seek a fairer criminal justice system, unclouded by racial bias, must at a minimum demand that the government eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, which tie judges’ hands; rescind three-strikes laws, which often make no distinction between, say, armed assault and auto theft; amend 'truth in sentencing' statutes, which prohibit early release for good behavior; and recalibrate drug policies, starting with decriminalization of marijuana possession and investment in substance-abuse prevention and treatment."

On punishment and rehabilitation? In a New York Times op-ed: "[I]n America, our criminal justice system has too often focused on vengeance and punishment (and racial suspicion) rather than on crime prevention, restitution for victims and the social and economic reintegration of released prisoners into our communities so that they do not turn to crime again."

On police grants for the war on drugs, particularly on marijuana? On the ACLU's blog: "Every 37 seconds, another person is needlessly ensnared in the criminal justice system just for having marijuana. These arrests are not happening on every block. Despite the fact that Blacks and whites use marijuana at comparable rates, Blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.This wasteful, racially biased numbers game is fueled by the fact that when the federal government doles out hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to law enforcement each year, they require reporting on arrest numbers, including marijuana arrests. This creates a powerful incentive for police to aggressively go after people with small amounts of marijuana — it's an easy way to get a lot of arrests."

On civil asset forfeiture? In a Huffington Post op-ed: "Giving government the power to seize property at will based on mere suspicions of criminality opens the door to corruption and abuse of power. Incentivizing law enforcement to fund itself off the backs of low-income motorists, most of whom lack the means of fighting back, without hard evidence of criminal activity is no way to run our justice system. These are principles that we should all be able to agree on."

On the militarization of police? During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in an interview with the Brian Lehrer Show: "What Ferguson has laid bare is something that communities of color, kind of at the target of the war on drugs, have known for the last several decades — that policing in their communities is often highly militarized.… The question will be that once the cameras leave Ferguson, once the Ferguson hashtag is no longer trending on Twitter, is there going to be the political will and resolve to actually address what has been a very alarming situation in local and state police departments around the country? Because there's no question that this has really gone out of control."

What are Vanita Gupta's supporters saying?

Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist, president and founder of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, supports Vanita Gupta's nomination. (Alex Wong / Getty Images News)

• Grover Norquist, president and founder of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, to the Washington Post: "She's been good to work with and a serious person. She's been open to working with conservatives on good policy. She has played a strong role in the left-right cooperation in criminal justice issues."

• David Keene, conservative Washington Times opinion editor and former president of the National Rifle Association, to the Washington Post: "Vanita is a very good person. I’ve worked with her on criminal justice reform issues. Most of the Obama administration people have been so ideologically driven that they won’t talk to people who disagree with them. Vanita is someone who works with everyone. She both listens to and works with people from all perspectives to accomplish real good."

• Eric Holder, President Obama's attorney general, in a statement to the Associated Press: "Even as she has done trailblazing work as a civil rights lawyer, Vanita is also known as a unifier and consensus builder. She has a knack for bridging differences and building coalitions to drive progress."

• Lisa Nelson, president of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, to the Huffington Post: "I would say that she was very helpful, she worked with my team. It was a really good, positive relationship."

• Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority, in a statement to Vox: "Having someone who believes that marijuana legalization is a social justice issue serving as the chief civil rights official in the Justice Department will be simply game changing. Hopefully she can convince the next attorney general to initiate the process of rescheduling marijuana under federal law."

• Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, in a statement: Gupta "is an outstanding attorney with a significant depth and breadth of civil rights experience. She is a proven and well-respected leader, a creative thinker who has consistently worked collaboratively to achieve significant results."

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