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Civil Rights Division Nominee Eric Dreiband Appears Before Senate Panel


The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division launched 60 years ago this week, a time of turmoil and racial unrest. Today the unit prosecutes hate crimes and protects minority voters. That's on the minds of lawmakers as they consider President Trump's choice to lead the unit. He had a Senate hearing today, and NPR's Carrie Johnson reports there were many questions about the nominee's commitment to the mission.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley opened the hearing with a reference to violence in Charlottesville, Va. Just last month, a woman died while protesting white supremacists and neo-Nazis who rallied there.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: This is an issue that weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of senators of this committee and the American people.

JOHNSON: The FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are investigating whether the man who rammed his car into Heather Heyer committed a hate crime. California Senator Dianne Feinstein described troubling developments for the Justice Department and the country.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Hate groups are up. The nation is divided. Non-white communities feel that they have nobody really representing them.

JOHNSON: What, she asked, would Eric Dreiband do about that? He's President Trump's choice to run the Civil Rights Division, and he responded this way.


ERIC DREIBAND: The bigotry and ideology of neo-Nazism, Nazism, white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan are a disgrace to this country and should be eradicated from the United States.

JOHNSON: Dreiband says if he wins Senate confirmation, he'll make prosecuting hate crimes and human traffickers his highest priorities. And he pointed to his record in public service, including work as the top lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


DREIBAND: We successfully prosecuted and resolved a very large sex discrimination case against a major Wall Street firm, a large race and sex discrimination case against a national retailer and an egregious sexual harassment and discrimination case against a vineyard.

JOHNSON: Critics say they're skeptical because for the past 12 years, Dreiband has worked in private law practice, defending companies in cases filed by workers who claimed they faced discrimination because of their sex or race or religion. More than 70 civil rights groups have opposed the nomination, calling him the wrong man for the job. At the hearing, Dreiband promised to vigorously defend civil rights laws. But Feinstein, the Democrat from California, asked why he had testified in Congress years ago against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.


FEINSTEIN: Why would you be opposed to equal pay for equal work?

DREIBAND: Senator Feinstein, I am not opposed to equal pay. In fact I fully support equal pay for all Americans without respect to their gender or their race or anything else.

JOHNSON: Other Democrats wanted to know if Dreiband really believed millions of people voted fraudulently in last year's presidential election. President Trump has advanced that idea without any evidence on Twitter. Dreiband replied he'd seen no data about voter fraud in the U.S. And he said he didn't know much about a White House commission studying problems with voter rolls.


DREIBAND: I'm not familiar with what the Election Integrity Commission is doing. And you know, what I will do is enforce the laws within the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Division whether anybody likes it or not.

JOHNSON: Whether Dreiband gets that chance will be up to Republicans. They hold the balance of power on the judiciary committee and in the U.S. Senate, which must vote on his nomination. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.