Former ACLU lawyer to lead US Justice Department civil rights unit
Police advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson (AFP)

A former lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union will assume a top civil rights post at the U.S. Justice Department, taking control of a unit that is deep into investigations into the Ferguson, Missouri police department and battles over voting rights.

Vanita Gupta, who was the deputy legal director of the ACLU, will become the acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ's civil division, the Justice Department said on Wednesday. The White House is also expected to nominate her to formally lead the unit, a person familiar with the discussions said.

The division has been without a confirmed head for more than a year, after the former top official, Thomas Perez, was approved to become Labor secretary.

The Senate rejected President Barack Obama's choice to replace him, Debo Adegbile, in March amid an uproar over legal work Adegbile once did for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.

Gupta comes to the department as the No. 2 official in the civil rights division but will also fill the top role because current acting head Molly Moran was promoted. The move allows the department to essentially bring in a new head from the outside, which it usually does not do for acting appointments.

The movement within the agency follows several high-profile departures and an announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder that he also planned to leave the agency once a new attorney general is confirmed. Obama has not yet named a replacement and is not expected to do so until after the Nov. 4 election.

Holder made civil rights a cornerstone of his tenure, placing the division at the center of his efforts to bring a series of cases against local police for using excessive force and successfully blocking many state voter ID laws before the 2012 election, likening them to Jim Crow-style poll taxes.

Last week, a federal judge struck down a Texas law requiring voters to show identification at polls, saying it placed an unconstitutional burden on voters and discriminated against minorities. An appeals court on Tuesday put the ruling on hold pending an appeal.

The civil rights division has launched investigations stemming from the shooting death of a black teenager by a white policeman in Ferguson, which led to violent clashes with police.

Last month, the Justice Department asked the Ferguson police department to stop its officers from wearing bracelets in support of the white policeman, Darren Wilson.

(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)