As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to consider Eric Dreiband to serve as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, senators should approach his nomination with deep skepticism.
Second to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Dreiband will be the most influential figure in enforcing some of our nation’s most critical laws. And Sessions’s own nomination hearing and subsequent tenure stand as a cautionary tale when it comes to evaluating the records of those charged with safeguarding our civil rights.
Unfortunately, Eric Dreiband has devoted the vast majority of his career to undermining the rights of workers subjected to employment discrimination. He has sought to limit the rights and remedies of discrimination victims not only in the courtroom but also before Congress. He personally testified against bipartisan legislation to reverse the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter decision, which allowed for pay discrimination against women. He also testified against legislation to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Gross v. FBL Financial, which made it harder for older workers and persons with disabilities to prove discrimination. Moreover, he has no known experience in most of the Civil Rights Division’s core issue areas, such as voting rights, police reform, education, housing, and hate crimes.
Nevertheless, we are certain that Dreiband and his supporters will attempt to portray him as a vigorous defender of civil rights. The Senate and the American people should not be fooled by the same misrepresentations and misleading rhetoric that enabled Dreiband’s prospective boss, Sessions, to vault into the highest law enforcement position in the land.
In the lead-up to Sessions’s confirmation hearing, conservatives and Republicans went out of their way to mislead the Senate and the American people regarding Sessions’s record. They somehow argued, with a straight face, that Sessions would be good for the enforcement of critical legal protections. A dark money group that had spent $21 million supporting Donald Trump ran ads calling Jeff Sessions “a civil rights champion.” The Trump Administration touted Sessions’s “strong civil rights record,” and then-incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said that Sessions was a “man who has spent his entire life fighting for equality.” Senator John Cornyn said that Sessions would “reembrace the concept of equal justice under the law.”
At his confirmation hearing, Sessions joined in this charade. Despite his atrocious record as U.S. Attorney in Alabama and decades fighting against civil rights in the Senate, Jeff Sessions told the Senate that “[t]he Department of Justice must never falter in its obligation to protect the civil rights of every American, particularly those who are most vulnerable.”
But on issue after issue, the distance between his words and his actions could not be starker.
In his confirmation hearing, Sessions said that “a special priority for me in this regard will be the aggressive enforcement of laws to ensure access to the ballot for every eligible voter without hindrance.”
As Attorney General, Sessions took the extraordinary step of withdrawing the Justice Department’s position, already fully litigated and developed in court, that Texas had adopted a voter ID law for racially discriminatory reasons. Despite the Department’s efforts to ignore discriminatory intent, the court nonetheless ruled that Texas had in fact engaged in intentional discrimination. Moreover, Sessions sided with Ohio’s voter purge program designed to make it more difficult for people of color to vote. And in June, the Department sent a letter to 44 states (the same day the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity sent a letter controversially requesting personal voter information) requesting that election officials detail their compliance with a section of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 which specifies when voters may be kicked off the rolls.
In his confirmation hearing, Sessions specifically stated, “I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community. I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are fully enforced.” When specifically asked about an employer firing an employee solely because the employee was gay, Sessions wrote, “in general, such a firing would appear to be in violation of the law and would conflict with justice and fairness.”
As Attorney General, Sessions filed a brief arguing that federal civil rights laws do not protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. And he
rescinded guidance protecting transgender students from discrimination at school.
Unconstitutional Travel Ban
In his confirmation hearing, Sessions said he “do[es] not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.” Senator Mazie Hirono related that Sessions told her he “would not support” a “ban on Muslims coming to this country based on the fact that they were Muslims.” When Senator Hirono asked him if “Muslim-Americans [can] count on you as attorney general to protect their constitutional and civil rights,” Jeff Sessions said “yes.”
As Attorney General, Sessions’s Justice Department has defended Trump’s unconstitutional and discriminatory travel ban.
Civil Asset Forfeiture
In his confirmation hearing, Sessions told the Committee that “individuals are certainly justified in wanting to ensure that law enforcement is focused on enforcing the law and that corruption is not incentivized.” If confirmed, he said, he would “review the Department of Justice’s policies to ensure that” recent policy changes “have adequately addressed any such issues and have not created new issues or complications. The seizure of the proceeds of illegal activity, especially drugs, is an effective way to deter drug dealing, but must be done according to law.”
As Attorney General, Sessions reversed Obama-era guidance and, in doing so, made it easier for law enforcement to seize cash and property from Americans without first bringing criminal charges.
Use of Private Prisons
In his confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked about Obama Justice Department policy intended to phase out private prisons. He said, “I will carefully evaluate the relevant evidence and the Department of Justice’s policies to ensure that its detention facilities are safe, secure, humane, and represent an effective use of resources.”
As Attorney General, Sessions rescinded the Obama Administration policy and again allowed the Bureau of Prisons to use private prisons.
- Sessions’s budget assumes a major reduction of staff in the Civil Rights Division.
- Sessions quickly announced his intent to end the Department’s oversight of police departments that have a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing. He even sought to rescind an already court-approved monitoring agreement overseeing police in Baltimore.
- He has declared that the Justice Department would investigate affirmative-action programs, deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, as discriminatory against white Americans.
- He has reversed criminal justice reform policies designed to ensure prosecutors use limited resources to target violent offenders, rather than low-level nonviolent drug offenders.
- Sessions tried to deny critical law enforcement funding to cities that will not assist the federal government in targeting immigrants. A federal judge has enjoined the Department’s policy.
- Sessions has dropped the Justice Department’s appeal of a key disability rights lawsuit that the Obama Administration had brought on behalf of a woman who was fired as a sheriff’s deputy after she underwent surgery for a heart condition. He also filed a brief that would severely limit the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act, limiting what is a “public accommodation.”
In only six months, Jeff Sessions has made it abundantly clear that he is not actually a “civil rights champion.” He is precisely who many pro-justice, pro-civil rights advocates warned he would be: An Attorney General who consistently undermines the civil rights of millions of Americans. Instead of “fighting for equality,” Sessions has unleashed a torrent of regressive and repressive policies.
Dreiband’s record, like Sessions’s record, shows that he is no civil rights champion. The Senate Judiciary Committee should be prepared for Dreiband to use the same bait-and-switch tactic that Sessions used, and it should be firm in its rejection of political doublespeak.