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Top DOJ official warns not to take law, democracy for granted as she leaves her post

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A top official at the U.S. Justice Department is leaving this week. Vanita Gupta manages a huge portfolio, from civil rights and policing to abortion and immigration. She sat down with NPR's Carrie Johnson today to reflect on her tenure.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For nearly three years now, Vanita Gupta says the job of associate attorney general, the third-highest ranking official at the DOJ, has been a sprint.

VANITA GUPTA: I have been in situations where I have literally been running down a hallway and crossing another person running down in the opposite direction just so that we can convey information and make sure that we're having the types of robust discussions that we need to on matters of the day.

JOHNSON: Those matters of the day can range from civil rights and the environment to moments of tragedy. Gupta says some of the most meaningful and painful experiences have come in meetings with victims of gun violence - street crime in Chicago, the racially motivated killings at a grocery store in Buffalo and the murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022.

GUPTA: These trips are - they are ones that will stick with me forever.

JOHNSON: This month federal authorities said some of those people may have died because of the botched law enforcement response. Family members sobbed as they heard the DOJ findings, she says.

GUPTA: I talk about them a lot because I think it is important to understand that the trauma that lives in the aftermath of these acts goes on long after the media goes away.

JOHNSON: She says the DOJ is working to support those survivors and first responders who are traumatized after seeing the most awful things. This has been Gupta's second tour at the Justice Department. In the Obama years, she led the Civil Rights Division, launching systemic investigations of police departments that violated the Constitution. Those pattern or practice investigations fell out of favor in the Trump administration, but Gupta and her colleagues have revived those tools.

GUPTA: We are operating to ensure effectiveness. And when we find places where we are less than effective or that need improvement, we have to be willing to take a look at ourselves and see what we can do better.

JOHNSON: Another top priority for Gupta has been responding to the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, which threw out an abortion precedent on the books for nearly 50 years.

GUPTA: Dobbs dealt a devastating blow to reproductive freedom in the United States. And the decision has been greatly disproportionate in its effect. The greatest burdens have been felt by people of color or those with limited financial means and other vulnerable populations.

JOHNSON: As the fight over abortion rights continues, the Justice Department's involved in two pending Supreme Court cases about abortion - supporting access to mifepristone, which is used in medication abortions, and demanding hospitals live up to a law that says facilities that participate in Medicare have to provide abortions when they're necessary to stabilize an emergency room patient.

GUPTA: We've heard some of the horror stories of women being denied emergency care, being told to sit in parking lots while they're bleeding out, etc. because doctors literally are afraid of being prosecuted for making the wrong decision or wrong determination about whether something is an emergency requiring abortion care to save a woman's life.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department's also feuding with Texas in the Supreme Court over that state's move to limit federal immigration agents. Gupta says the DOJ will protect the federal government's interests. As she prepares to leave on Friday, she says she's not certain what comes next for her.

GUPTA: I'm going to take some rest, maybe smother my kids with a little over-parenting and read some good books.

JOHNSON: Gupta says she spent her whole life in public service, so she may find a way back again. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.