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The family of George Floyd visited Washington on the anniversary of his death and urged Congress to act on the George Floyd Policing Act. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday narrowly confirmed Kristen Clarke to be the Justice Department’s civil rights chief, making her the first Black woman to fill the high-profile role.

The Senate voted 51-48 to confirm Clarke, with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as the lone Republican to support President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead a powerful division of the Justice Department that’s in charge of investigating police abuses and enforcing voting rights laws and federal statutes prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, religion and other factors.

Clarke fills the post at a pivotal time for the Justice Department, as high-profile deaths of Black citizens during encounters with police have led to months of social justice protests and calls for reform. Clarke, a longtime civil rights attorney, is expected to play a pivotal role in reinvigorating the Justice Department’s investigations of troubled police agencies, which languished during the Trump administration.

Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, will also be at the center of the Justice Department’s response to an onslaught of restrictive voting laws that were passed in several states after the last presidential election. She was confirmed on the first year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. 

Senate Republicans have been fiercely critical of Clarke and said previous statements she’s made on issues such as voting rights, religious liberty and policing make them question whether she can be a nonpartisan enforcer of civil rights. 

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“A vote for Kristen Clarke is a vote to defund the police,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said before the vote Tuesday.

Democrats defended Clarke, citing her long career as a civil rights attorney. Clarke and Vanita Gupta, who was recently confirmed as the third-highest-ranking official at the Justice Department and also a woman of color, have both been swept into a campaign attached to hot-button issues of race and police misconduct. 

More: Merrick Garland’s confirmation expected, but DOJ nominees of color Vanita Gupta, Kristen Clarke face greater criticism

“Kristen Clarke is singularly qualified to lead (the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division) particularly in this moment in history,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. 

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Clarke began her career as a Justice Department lawyer, prosecuting police brutality, hate crimes and human trafficking cases and enforcing voting rights laws. She continued advocacy work on voting rights at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was also the civil rights enforcement officer for the New York State Attorney General’s Office. 

“Having known Kristen for more than two decades and most recently serving as her top deputy, I know she is exactly the person we need at this moment when threats to civil rights have peaked,” Damon Hewitt, acting president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson

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