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Labor lawyer tapped for civil rights post worries advocates

Business Insider—Sadie Gurman

WASHINGTON (AP) — Observers seeking glimpses into how a Washington labor lawyer would serve as the Trump administration's top civil rights attorney often look to his defense of clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch against a Muslim woman's claim she was not hired because she wore a head scarf.

But Eric Dreiband's career includes experience on both sides of discrimination cases. It's a history his supporters say gives him a well-rounded understanding of the law — and one his critics argue makes it hard to know how he views the government's role in areas such as voting, gay rights and policing, some of the most pressing issues the Justice Department's civil rights division has faced in recent years.

Dreiband's complex background likely will be a focus of a confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Civil rights advocates have lined up to oppose him, noting his work on behalf of large companies and institutions against discrimination claims. He was, for example, among 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.

But a decade earlier, 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.

Dreiband would oversee the Justice Department's civil rights division at a time of sweeping change. The unit traditionally is subject to the most radical shift in agendas with each change in presidential administration, but advocates say Attorney General Jeff Sessions' reversals of previous policy have been disturbingly quick. Under Sessions, the department supported a strict Texas voter ID that a federal judge last month found discriminates against minorities; 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 is "walking into an administration that has been incredibly hostile to civil rights," said David Lopez, the EEOC's general counsel during the Obama administration. "The only question is whether he will dedicate his enormous capacity as a lawyer and intelligence to either rubber-stamping those efforts or to, in some way, mitigate those efforts."

His approach would surely differ from that of his Obama-era 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 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.

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