Imagine nominating the lawyer who defended tobacco companies for years to head the agency that will regulate cigarettes. That is sort of what President Donald Trump did on Thursday with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, when he nominated Eric Dreiband to head the agency.
Dreiband, if approved by the Senate, will come from the law firm Jones Day, from which several other employees have also left to work in the federal government after Trump took office.
As an attorney, Dreiband has repeatedly defended companies from discrimination claims. His highest-profile case wound up before the US Supreme Court, where he defended Abercrombie & Fitch when the company refused to hire a 17-year-old Muslim woman because she wore a headscarf. Abercrombie insisted that it didn’t have a reason to know the headscarf was meant for religious purposes. The court didn’t buy it, ruling 8-1 in favor of the Muslim woman.
He also has defended the tobacco company R.J. Reynolds in an age discrimination case, Bloomberg in a pregnancy discrimination case, and the Washington Post in an age and race discrimination case.
All of this requires a certain expertise in civil rights and nondiscrimination laws, which Dreiband will surely bring to the job. But as head of the Civil Rights Division, one of his top jobs would be to do the opposite of what his history suggests he’s specialized in: He would be expected to enforce civil rights law against big companies, government agencies like police departments, and other entities that may discriminate.
But Dreiband does have a brief history of taking the opposite role, serving in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which upholds nondiscrimination laws in the workplace, under President George W. Bush. There, he worked on lawsuits against Abercrombie & Fitch — for alleged discrimination against minority employees — and against a meat processing company in Chicago — for alleged discrimination against black and female employees. Still, this work represents only a small part of his career.
Dreiband has also long criticized some civil rights laws, such as legislation that would work to prohibit wage discrimination. And he criticized the “ban the box” initiative that attempts to prevent private employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history.
Civil rights groups quickly spoke out against Dreiband’s nomination. Coupled with Trump’s comments on the campaign trail and Jeff Sessions’s leadership at the Justice Department, the pick is just the latest sign that the Trump administration marks a return to the lack of seriousness toward civil rights law enforcement that has been typical of recent Republican presidencies. So one of the potentially most important duties of the federal government will go neglected.
“Now, more than ever, the leader of the Civil Rights Division must uphold its mission,” Vanita Gupta, who headed the Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and is now CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. “This is an administration that has shown an open hostility to, and a demonstrated record of, undermining our nation’s core civil rights. We need a leader who will take the lessons of previous administrations and reject the politicization of the division.”
She added, “Dreiband has devoted the vast majority of his career to defending corporations accused of employment discrimination. He has opposed important legislation to safeguard our civil rights. And he has no known experience in most of the Civil Rights Division’s core issue areas, such as voting rights, police reform, housing, education, and hate crimes. He is the wrong person for the job.”
What the Civil Rights Division does
The Civil Rights Division was established in 1957 to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws. Its role has greatly expanded since the ’50s, as federal lawmakers have enacted legislation to prohibit all kinds of discrimination — in the workplace, in schools, in public accommodations, in the voting booth, and by police officers, for example — based on factors like race, religion, sex, and more.
Whether the Civil Rights Division has actually been effective, however, has greatly depended on the administration in charge.
Under President George W. Bush’s administration, for example, the Civil Rights Division was severely restrained.
As Ryan Reilly reported for HuffPost, when Obama was elected, his transition team found a Civil Rights Division that was “‘demoralized and damaged’ by ‘oppressive’ political appointees who were ‘hostile’ to civil rights enforcement.” A report argued that the Bush administration had “abandoned the Division’s traditional mission and goals, consistently sacrificed sound law enforcement principles for political ends, and waged an internal war against career employees.”
In the aftermath of this, Obama, along with Attorney General Eric Holder and then Attorney General Loretta Lynch, worked to resize the Civil Rights Division. The agency played a particularly prominent role in holding police departments accountable, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore to Chicago — where the agency released multiple reports finding widespread abuses and racial discrimination among law enforcement.
The concern now is that the Trump administration, with someone like Dreiband at the helm, will go back to something more akin to the Bush years — discouraging and even outright opposing investigations into civil rights abuses.
Only the Justice Department and the Civil Rights Division are really geared to do these kinds of sweeping investigations, because they’re empowered by the law to do them. So it’s unclear if any of the abuses uncovered by the Justice Department in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and many other places would have been fully exposed without the official federal investigations.
Dreiband, based on his recent career, doesn’t seem like someone you’d appoint to this role if you’re serious about cracking down on civil rights abuses. After all, he has spent much of his career defending companies from claims that they violated someone’s civil rights.
Compare that to someone like Gupta, whom Obama appointed to head the Civil Rights Division while he was still in office. She had worked in this space before — working for the American Civil Liberties Union in the past and spending her career speaking out against civil rights violations, as she saw them, in the war on drugs, mass incarceration, police abuses, and more.
But it’s not just Dreiband. The Trump administration, under Sessions in particular, has shown that it doesn’t care much for civil rights efforts.
The Trump administration isn’t taking civil rights efforts seriously
Of course, much of this will come as little surprise to anyone who’s been watching Trump since he launched his 2016 campaign.
Trump’s campaign in particular was characterized by his own bigoted remarks. He proposed banning all Muslims from entering the US. He suggested that a judge should have to recuse himself from a case because of his Mexican heritage. He has been accused of sexual harassment by several women.
These are the kinds of ideas that civil rights laws are supposed to stop in their tracks: The ability to discriminate against someone or otherwise treat someone differently due to their race, ethnicity, religion, or sex is the exact thing these laws seek to prohibit.
Trump also picked as his attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has a long history of opposing and downplaying civil rights protections.
During discussion in 2009 about a new federal hate crimes law that would protect LGBTQ people and women, Sessions said, “Today, I'm not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don't see it.” FBI data, while imperfect, shows that LGBTQ people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than other minority groups.
Sessions previously said that the Voting Rights Act, which allowed the federal government to oversee elections in states with histories of racism, is a “piece of intrusive legislation.” And when the US Supreme Court struck down parts of the law, Sessions argued that Shelby County, Alabama, where the Supreme Court challenge came from, “has never had a history of denying voters and certainly not now” — even though the county, like Alabama generally, has a long, long history of discrimination of all kinds.
That doesn’t even get to controversial racist comments, which Sessions claims were jokes, that derailed his nomination to a federal judgeship in the 1980s. Among the many remarks that surfaced, Sessions once allegedly said the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.”
As attorney general, Sessions has lived up to the expectations of his past. In particular, he has already taken steps to stop the federal government from investigating police — by, for example, getting his Justice Department to “pull back” on civil rights lawsuits and investigations against law enforcement. He has also openly advocated for “tough on crime” policies, including aggressive police tactics and long prison sentences, that historically have been used against minority communities, even when controlling for differences in crime levels.
This is only the beginning. The Trump administration, after all, has only been in office for a little more than five months. But that brief time, along with Dreiband’s nomination, has been enough to alarm civil rights groups about where this is all going.