Civil rights activists raise alarm over Trump's DOJ pick

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Story highlights

  • Activists expressed concern over Dreiband's record on civil rights
  • "Mr. Dreiband is highly qualified to run the civil rights division," the White House told CNN

Washington (CNN)Civil rights and LGBT activists say they are concerned about President Donald Trump's nomination Thursday of Eric Dreiband to head the Justice Department's civil rights division because of his work defending major corporations and others against discrimination lawsuits.

Dreiband, a labor attorney in Washington, D.C., who served as general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under George W. Bush, has represented such companies as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in an age discrimination case, Bloomberg in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit, CVS Pharmacy in an employee severance agreement lawsuit brought by the EEOC, and Abercrombie & Fitch in a Supreme Court case involving a Muslim woman who was not hired by the company because she wore a headscarf.
Eric Dreiband.
The nomination of Dreiband, an attorney with Jones Day whose partners included White House Counsel Donald McGahn, serves to undermine " fundamental civil rights priorities," the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said in a statement Thursday.
    "Dreiband has devoted most of his career to defending corporations in employment discrimination cases and advocating for weaker antidiscrimination protections in the workplace," the statement said. "He also has a troubling lack of experience, having done no significant work in other issue areas central to the Division's mission, including urgent priorities like voting rights and policing reform."
    Vanita Gupta, who led the department's civil rights division under President Barack Obama and now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement: "Whoever leads the 'crown jewel' of the Justice Department must have deep relationships with stakeholders and marginalized communities, and have a deep, abiding faith in our nation's civil rights laws. They must respect the laws that touch everyone, rights that people have literally died for. They must respect the role of what has been called the conscience of the federal government. In all those regards, Eric Dreiband is woefully unqualified to lead the Civil Rights Division."
    The White House countered that assertion Friday.
    "The White House judges nominees on the merits of their character and not on the clients they once represented as counsel," White House spokeswoman Kelly Love told CNN Friday. "Mr. Dreiband is highly qualified to run the civil rights division, and we are privileged to have his service."
    Washington attorney Leslie Silverman, who worked closely with Dreiband at the EEOC, affirmed the nominee's belief in the country's civil rights laws in an phone interview with CNN on Friday, saying that "when people are critical of Eric and civil rights, they should take a look at what he did" because his record "stands for itself."
    "Eric was incredibly respected and well-regarded at the agency by the career employees and pretty much everybody that dealt with him," Silverman said. "He's a lawyer's lawyer. He's a hard worker. He has incredible integrity. He's very bright and I think that he's going to do a great job."
    LGBT groups criticized Dreiband, however, for his more recent representation of the University of North Carolina in defense of its decision to honor the provisions of the state's controversial "bathroom bill" that banned people from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex as listed on their birth certificates. Those provisions were repealed in March.
    "I think that Mr. Dreiband has a great deal to answer for, and the best way to give him an opportunity to acquit himself of these concerns shared by the Log Cabin Republicans and other LGBT advocates is to give him the benefit of a hearing," Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative group that advocates for LGBT rights, told CNN in a phone interview Friday.
    Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, characterized Dreiband as someone "with a history of restricting civil rights" in a statement Thursday and urged lawmakers to "ask the tough questions during his confirmation process."
    "Dreiband has made a career going against women and LGBT rights," McCurdy said, noting his defense of the University of North Carolina in the "bathroom bill" case. McCurdy added that as an EEOC lawyer, Dreiband testified before Congress against legislation to prevent wage discrimination, and as a private attorney, "represented organizations seeking religious exemptions to avoid providing contraceptive coverage to women in the workplace."
    But the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative voting watchdog group, accused Obama's Justice Department of selectively enforcing voting rights laws for partisan gain, saying Dreiband's nomination would reverse such alleged practices.
    "Eric Dreiband is the right pick to return the Civil Rights Division to a tradition of enforcing the law free from politics," the group's president, J. Christian Adams, said in a statement Thursday. "The DOJ should again enforce laws requiring clean voter rolls and clean elections."