Trump Justice Department pick stresses commitment to civil rights amid criticism

Story highlights

  • Eric Dreiband has been a labor attorney for Washington law firms Akin Gump and Jones Day
  • He was grilled by the Senate judiciary committee over his previous cases

(CNN)Eric Dreiband's record has been picked apart by civil rights groups, but the man nominated to lead the Justice Department's civil rights division stuck to a singular message during his confirmation hearing: "What I will do is enforce the laws within the jurisdiction of the civil rights division, whether anybody likes it or not."

Dreiband repeatedly batted away questions about whether he would bow to political pressure if confirmed, and explained that his work representing corporate clients as a private attorney was not indicative of how he would function as a top government lawyer.
"The role of an attorney in private practice is a very different role than an attorney who is representing the United States," Dreiband told senators on the judiciary committee Wednesday.
    Dreiband is nominated to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
    Civil rights groups are concerned about Dreiband's work since 2005 as a labor attorney for prominent Washington law firms Akin Gump and Jones Day, where he is currently a partner. Dreiband has defended companies like R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in an age discrimination case, Bloomberg in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit and CVS Pharmacy in an employee severance agreement lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
    The deputy director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, Jesselyn McCurdy, has characterized Dreiband as someone "with a history of restricting civil rights," while the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said that Dreiband's nomination serves to undermine "fundamental civil rights priorities."
    Dreiband addressed the criticism head-on during his confirmation hearing, explaining that his role as a corporate lawyer was to "zealously advocate for (his) clients," while as a government attorney he had a "duty to the public interest, a duty to seek justice and to do justice...on behalf of the people of the United States."
    Dreiband reiterated, that's "a very different role than an attorney in private practice."
    Dreiband was general counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005, and was a Deputy Administrator at the US Department of Labor from 2002 to 2003.
    "I am especially proud of my service at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission," Dreiband stated as he opened his testimony. "I was responsible for the Commission's enforcement of several civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the American with Disabilities Act."
    The first question for Dreiband came from judiciary committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, who asked for Dreiband's reaction to the violence in Charlottesville in August after white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters.
    Dreiband seized on the question to articulate his commitment to civil rights in this country. "The bigotry and ideology of neo-Nazism, Nazism, white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan are a disgrace to this country and should be eradicated from the United States," Dreiband said.
    "If I am confirmed," Dreiband continued, "anyone who perpetuates crimes or other civil rights violations that come within the jurisdiction of the civil rights division should know, and they should be on notice if I'm confirmed, the civil rights division is coming for them."
    Trump was widely criticized for his response to the Charlottesville violence, where he put blame on "both sides."
    Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who was skeptical Dreiband had the right experience to lead the civil rights department, pressed him. "Do you believe you would have a special responsibility to speak up against people promoting hate on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation?" Hirono asked.
    "I do," Dreiband responded. "Hate crimes are a serious problem in this country. If I am confirmed, the hate crimes that come within the jurisdiction of the civil rights division would be a major priority of mine. I was totally disgusted by the disgrace we saw in Charlottesville."
    Hirono then released a statement after the hearing saying Dreiband had "a disturbing record of opposing civil rights actions, and we did not have adequate opportunity to press him on his views under oath."
    "With the limited time we had, I found Mr. Dreiband's answers on how the Justice Department should enforce our nation's civil rights laws to be lacking, and will submit substantive written follow-up to address my continued concerns," she continued.
    The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was established by the Justice Department after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The Division primarily functions to investigate and initiate legal proceedings seeking relief in cases involving discrimination in the areas of education, employment, housing, voting and federally funded programs, among others.
    Senators on the judiciary committee now have one week to submit additional written questions to Dreiband. The date for the confirmation vote has not yet been scheduled.