White House Considers Former EEOC Lawyer for Civil-Rights Post

Wall Street Journal—Beth Reinhard

The White House is considering Eric Dreiband, who filed discrimination lawsuits as the top lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and has also defended big businesses from such lawsuits, to lead the civil rights division at the Justice Department, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Dreiband now works at Jones Day, a law firm that has become a popular wellspring for the new administration and supplied many of the lawyers who sued the administration of former President Barack Obama over its health-care law. Mr. Dreiband was part of the legal team that represented Catholic plaintiffs objecting to the contraceptive coverage under the law.

Mr. Dreiband also represented the University of North Carolina system when it was sued by the Justice Department over a state law requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms matching the gender listed on their birth certificate. The university system argued last year that it didn’t intend to enforce the law.

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The civil rights division at the Justice Department, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, has broader authority than the EEOC to enforce federal laws barring discrimination and to investigate alleged violations of voting rights and civil liberties. Former Attorney General Eric Holder repeatedly called the division “the crown jewel” of the Justice Department.

If nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Dreiband, whose potential selection was reported last month by National Public Radio, would lead the office at a time when hate crimes are on the rise.

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The former acting chief of the division under Mr. Obama, Vanita Gupta, is among those scheduled to testify. She has sharply criticized the direction of the civil rights division under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has called for a pullback from investigating police departments accused of civil-rights abuses and has withdrawn from part of a voting-rights case in Texas.

Mr. Sessions has suggested that federal oversight of police departments has made them less aggressive in fighting crime and helped fuel a surge in murders in some big cities.

A judge recently rejected Mr. Sessions’ request to delay a legally binding agreement aimed at curbing racially biased tactics in Baltimore. On the voter law, after the Justice Department changed its position, a federal judge nonetheless found that Texas lawmakers intended to discriminate against minorities by requiring certain photo identification to vote.

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Mr. Dreiband served as the top lawyer at the EEOC, which enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, under former President George W. Bush, a Republican, from 2003 to 2005.

David Lopez, who served in the same job at the EEOC under Mr. Obama, said nothing in Mr. Dreiband’s record provides “any glimpse about whether he would be a rubber stamp or counterweight to General Sessions’ stated goal to turn back the clock in areas of voter disenfranchisement, police-community relations and the broad gamut of pressing civil-rights issues requiring an active and vigilant civil rights division.”

But conservatives complain that under Mr. Obama, the division pandered to liberal civil-rights activists. A letter from conservative leaders a month ago urged Mr. Sessions to return the division “to equal enforcement of all federal voting statutes strictly to advance the rule of law—rather than partisan gamesmanship.”

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Leslie Silverman, a former EEOC commissioner, said Mr. Dreiband is well-suited to the post.

“He’s a lawyer’s lawyer with incredible integrity,” she said. “He strongly believes in civil-rights laws and wants to see them fairly applied.”

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Before working at the EEOC, Mr. Dreiband worked in the Office of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr. In that position, according to his law firm biography, he led the successful prosecution of former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, a close associate of former President Bill Clinton and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.