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Civil rights nominee offers assurances he will be aggressive

Eric Dreiband is sworn in during a Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, on Dreiband's nomination to be Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Washington labor lawyer tapped to be the Trump administration’s top civil rights attorney offered assurances Wednesday that he is sensitive to voting rights and hate crimes, in the face of criticism of his record of defending large companies against discrimination claims.

Rights groups have opposed Eric Dreiband’s nomination, citing his private sector work and uncertainty about his stances on key areas such as gay rights, criminal justice and policing. But his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was largely devoid of fireworks, and there are no apparent obstacles to his confirmation to lead the Justice Department’s vaunted civil rights division.

The division has always been a political hotbed and that’s especially been true under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Under Sessions, the department changed positions to support a strict Texas voter ID law that a federal judge last month found discriminates against minorities. The department also has backed off court-enforceable improvement plans for troubled police agencies and told local school districts they no longer must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Dreiband revealed little about his views on those most pressing issues, promising only aggressive enforcement of all civil rights laws. Tackling a rise in hate crimes will be a top priority of his civil rights division, he said, after senators pressed him for his thoughts on the violent demonstrations by white nationalists that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia last month. The Justice Department’s civil rights division has opened a federal hate crimes probe into the violence that left one woman dead and others hurt.

“There is no place in this country for neo-Nazisim, white supremacy, the KKK, the ideology of hatred, bigotry, discrimination, murder and other crimes against people by people acting on those ideologies,” Dreiband said. “I was totally disgusted by the disgrace that we saw in Charlottesville.”

Dreiband’s approach to civil rights law would surely differ from that of his Democratic predecessor, Vanita Gupta, a former ACLU attorney who oversaw the division as it pushed the boundaries of civil rights law, intervening in lawsuits on behalf of transgender people, prisoners and the homeless.

Gupta has called Dreiband “woefully unqualified” to lead the division. But some conservatives say Dreiband would be a refreshing change from an Obama Justice Department they believe at times went too far. He would be part of a steady stream of Jones Day law partners flowing into the Trump administration that includes White House counsel Don McGahn.

Dreiband’s supporters stress that he has experience on both sides of discrimination cases, giving him a well-rounded understanding of the law. As the top lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush, Dreiband entered into class-action lawsuits on behalf of women and minorities, sometimes yielding major settlements.

In private practice, his notable cases included the defense of clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch against a Muslim woman’s claim she was not hired because she wore a headscarf. He was also part of a team of attorneys that fought against the Obama Justice Department when it sued the University of North Carolina over a state law restricting transgender people’s access to public bathrooms. Dreiband said Wednesday it was strictly a “procedural defense” because the university did not intend to follow the law.

But it was not clear where he stands on the Justice Department’s role in protecting the rights of gay and transgender people. One of his favorite cases he oversaw at the EEOC involved a man who was denied a dishwashing job because he was deaf.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asked if the man should have received the same protections if he were gay.

Dreiband declined to answer Whitehouse’s question directly because lawsuits over the issue are making their way through the courts.

The Justice Department told a federal judge in July that sexual orientation is not covered by federal law, a pivot from its stance during the Obama administration. The EEOC, Dreiband’s former employer, said the law does cover sexual orientation.

“I think everyone should be treated with respect and treated without regard to any trait other than their work,” Drieband said.

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