On Thursday, the U.S. Senate confirmed lawyer Eric Dreiband as head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, despite some misgivings about his stances on civil and LGBTQ rights.
Following last Saturday’s contentious vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed cloture motions on two Trump judicial picks whose nominations have been languishing for more than a year without a floor vote — one of whom was Dreiband, according to the National Review.
The other nominee, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, seeking to head the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources divisions, had been held up over concerns about his environmental record, but was given a preliminary vote on Wednesday, when the Senate voted 53-44 to end debate on his nomination. On Thursday, he was finally confirmed by a 52-45 vote.
The Senate voted on Thursday by a 50-47 margin to end debate on Dreiband’s nomination, setting up a subsequent confirmation vote, which also passed on a party-line 50-47 vote. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) were not present.
As Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Dreiband will be entrusted with enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws, particularly those that bar forms of discrimination based on race, sex, disability, religion, or national origin.
The Civil Rights Division often oversees disputes related to the Voting Rights Act, most notably state efforts that seek to suppress minorities’ voting rights, either through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, or other methods like voter caging.
During Dreiband’s confirmation hearing, civil rights groups flagged some of the answers he gave to senators’ questions as warnings that he may adopt a very narrow view of what constitutes a civil rights violation.
LGBTQ groups, in particular, have been concerned about Dreiband’s decision to represent the University of North Carolina in a lawsuit challenging the university’s decision to enforce HB 2, the anti-LGBTQ state law that restricted restroom access for transgender people and nullified local ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
They also expressed concerns over his work for nonprofit organizations seeking religious exemptions from having to provide insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act.
Recently, a mortgage company based out of Colorado has utilized a similar argument, citing its religious objections as justification for yanking spousal health care benefits from employees in same-sex marriages.
When Dreiband’s nomination was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee along with three other anti-gay judges, the Human Rights Campaign called all four a “threat to the rights and safety of LGBTQ people.”
“These nominees have anti-LGBTQ records that are disturbing and disqualifying,” David Stacy, HRC’s director of government affairs, said at the time. “The Senate should reject them.”
LGBTQ groups lamented Dreiband’s confirmation despite concerns that were apparently significant enough that Republicans did not have the requisite number of votes to bring his nomination to the Senate floor for more than a year.
“Throughout its 60-year history, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has been a stalwart defender of civil rights in employment, education, housing, voting and many other aspects of life. In the face of increased violence and pervasive discrimination against vulnerable groups, including the LGBT community, the work of the Civil Rights Division is more important than ever,” Sharon McGowan, Lambda Legal’s chief strategy officer and legal director, said in a statement.
“What the Department of Justice sorely needs at this moment is a strong leader with a proven track record of defending civil rights,” added McGowan, a former career official for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. “That is not what they got today in Eric Dreiband. It is a sad day for the Civil Rights Division and yet another example of how the Department of Justice is no longer in the business of doing justice.”