Commentary: Delegation should back Vanita Gupta for associate attorney general

The Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C. (July 25, 2008) Photo courtesy of Ken Lund/Flickr

By Heather Kendall
For The Cordova Times

In response to enthusiastic support from Indian country and the Alaska Native community, Alaska’s U.S. senators unanimously voted to confirm Deb Haaland as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, and the first Native American ever to be appointed to a cabinet-level position. This is history in the making and a giant step forward for all Alaskans and all Americans. The delegation is to be applauded for putting aside bipartisan politics in support of such a strong candidate.

Another extraordinarily qualified nominee who deserves bipartisan support from our delegation is Vanita Gupta, President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as Associate Attorney General in the Department of Justice.

Why is this position so important to Alaska and to Indian country in general? Because the Associate Attorney General oversees critical divisions within DOJ, including the Office of Violence Against Women, or OVW — which provides federal leadership in reducing violence against women — and the Civil Rights Division, which protects vulnerable members of our communities from abuse and discrimination.

As our delegation knows well, more than 80% of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes, and one in three Native women is sexually assaulted. According to FBI data, Alaska tragically leads the nation in sexual assault and violence against women. These grim statistics led Sen. Lisa Murkowski to co-sponsor the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, in 2013 on the basis that “the issue and this bill are above politics.” Sen. Dan Sullivan likewise supported reauthorizing the VAWA and noted its import for Alaska. “My state, unfortunately, has the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault of any state in America,” he said on the Senate floor. “It is horrendous. The numbers. The victims. The carnage that this leaves.” Going further to tackle this problem head-on in village Alaska, Sen. Murkowski in 2019 also introduced the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act.

Our delegation’s strong support for combating the vicious scourge of domestic violence maiming and killing Native women warrants supporting a strong candidate for the position of Associate Attorney General — someone with experience and sensitivity to violence against women who will take positive action once in office. Vanita Gupta is that individual.

Before being nominated to be Associate Attorney General, Ms. Gupta fearlessly led the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, where she championed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, declaring that “everyone deserves to live safe and healthy lives, free from domestic violence, dating violence, sexual violence and stalking.” VAWA is landmark legislation that was originally authored by Joe Biden and was reauthorized in 2013. At that time, the act was amended to reaffirm that tribal nations possess the inherent power to protect Native women from abuse by Native and non-Native partners alike, and to prosecute those abusers in tribal court.

Deeper than Ms. Gupta’s strong recognition of the importance of VAWA, however, is her lifelong commitment to serving marginalized communities. Before Ms. Gupta led the Leadership Conference, Ms. Gupta was the head of the Civil Rights Division under President Obama, and, together with the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, her department issued data-driven guidance on identifying and preventing gender bias in law enforcement responses to sexual assault and domestic violence. The guidance has served as a critical foundation for assisting law enforcement agencies in responding to sexual assault and domestic violence so that survivors are protected and offenders held accountable. Moreover, this data-driven initiative brought together law enforcement leaders, civil rights advocates and stakeholders to understand how to better respond to cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.

This is precisely the kind of consensus-building that will be needed to address the range of sexual violence plaguing our community and communities all over America. It will require individuals in the highest levels of government — a person like Vanita Gupta, who has “immense credibility” among law enforcement and community leaders, to develop and implement government initiatives that actually work on the ground, and enforce and apply the law in a way that is sensible and just. And most of all, it will require someone who deeply values every member of our community — including those in the farthest corners of the country.

Alaska’s congressional delegation should support Vanita Gupta’s nomination and vote in favor of her confirmation.

Heather Kendall is a retired attorney and Dena’ina Athabascan, formerly with the Native American Rights Fund.