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Acting Civil Rights Head Still Awaits Nomination

As the acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta played an integral role in the Justice Department’s response to the recent unrest in Baltimore.

She met with city leaders in the days after demonstrations turned into violent protests over the April 19 death of a 25-year-old black man in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. She stood next to Attorney General Loretta Lynch at a news conference announcing a civil rights investigation into the BPD.

At the time she took the helm at Justice’s Civil Rights Division, an administration official told reporters President Barack Obama would soon pick her to take the job permanently. But more than six months after taking the temporary lead of the division, the White House has yet to send the Senate a nomination for Gupta or any other attorney to fill the spot permanently.

That means the top spot at the Civil Rights Division, a historically controversial position to get through the confirmation process, hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed leader in nearly two years.

In the meantime, Gupta, a career civil rights lawyer and former American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, is playing a key role in the big issues facing the Justice Department. That includes the department’s reactions to the deaths of black men in interactions with police in Ferguson, Mo.; New York, and now Baltimore.

There is no apparent reason Obama hasn’t officially nominated Gupta to lead the division, and no indication he might have changed his mind.

“Currently, Vanita Gupta is providing the leadership and stability the organization needs, and the administration not only has full confidence in her abilities in this role but is proud of the work she has been doing,” an administration official said.

James Cole, who left the Justice Department as the No. 2 administrator in January, said Gupta is a talented leader in the acting capacity.

“She inspires loyalty in the civil rights division, so she helps overcome any disability” that comes with not having the official title, said Cole, now a partner at the Sidley Austin law firm.

But the department functions much better when those in Gupta’s position are in a confirmed status.

“It’s better as a general matter” to have division heads “in place that have the authority already, have the confirmation under their belt, and have the ability to take those actions in a more official way,” Cole said.

The Justice Department will carry on its work in any division even when it doesn’t have a confirmed head, said Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general who is now a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

There’s less uncertainty about who will be the leader in the long term, and when nominees are not confirmed they have to look at every issue through the lens of an upcoming confirmation process, Gorelick said.

The Justice Department now is in a state of transition at the top administrator posts, including the confirmation of Lynch after months of delay in the Senate.

Two others are in the Senate confirmation process: acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to take the position full time as the No. 2 administrator, and acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery to take that position full time as the No. 3 administrator.

Democrats and Republicans historically have had confirmation battles over the Civil Rights Division spot because the parties have different approaches to how the division should be run, starting with affirmative action and voting rights, Gorelick said.

“They are hot-button issues that do provoke strong feelings,” Gorelick said. “So it’s by no means unusual.”

Gupta is the right person for the job, Gorelick said. “She’s just very impressive; she’s smart, she’s able, she can navigate difficult issues,” Gorelick said. “She has a terrific demeanor for that job and is a collaborative person.”

The last Senate-confirmed leader of the division was Thomas E. Perez, who is now Labor secretary. Obama nominated Debo Adegbile to the post, but some Democrats joined Republicans in blocking his confirmation in March 2014.

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