- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - An American Civil Liberties Union attorney was named Wednesday to be the acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Vanita Gupta, who has served for the past four years as deputy legal director of the ACLU and director of its Center for Justice, starts at the Justice Department next week. She previously worked as a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

A person familiar with the process said President Barack Obama plans to nominate Gupta to serve in the job permanently. The person was not authorized to discuss the selection process by name and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“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,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement, saying Gupta has worked to promote “equal justice for all.”

As a civil rights lawyer, Gupta has been involved in representing drug prisoners in Texas who were ultimately pardoned by the governor and immigrant children detained at a privately run prison, and she’s overseen a project to end the segregation of HIV-infected prison inmates.

She has also been outspoken on matters of drug and sentencing policy, issues that Holder has made cornerstones of his agenda as attorney general.

In a New York Times opinion piece last year on reducing the nation’s prison population, she encouraged states to end mandatory-minimum sentences, rescind “three-strikes” laws and decriminalize the possession of marijuana. She said such moves were necessary for a “fairer criminal justice system, unclouded by racial bias.”

“The buildup of our prison-industrial complex was a bipartisan process that unfolded over decades, and digging ourselves out of this hole will require unlikely political alliances,” she wrote.

Holder, who plans to leave his position once a successor is confirmed, has prioritized civil rights matters since becoming attorney general in 2009. The Justice Department has challenged voting rights statutes it sees as impeding access to the ballot box and has launched twice as many broad civil rights investigations into police departments in the last five years as it did in the five years before that.

The department’s Civil Rights Division is currently investigating the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the overall practices of that city’s police department.

A prior civil rights nominee, Debo Adegbile, failed to win Senate confirmation last March amid opposition over his legal work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter who is serving life in prison in the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer.

An aide to Holder, Molly Moran, has served in the position in an interim capacity. She will become principal deputy associate attorney general.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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