President Trump’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division promised Congress on Wednesday that he is committed to prosecuting violations of the Voting Rights Act, and called voters’ access to the ballot “critically important.”
Eric Dreiband defended his record before the Senate Judiciary Committee amid opposition from civil rights groups who say they detected hostility toward racial justice.
Democrats on the committee peppered Mr. Dreiband with questions on how he would handle hate crime investigations or respond to laws that restrict voter access to the polls, and asked him to explain his prior opposition to legislation that made it easier for workers to challenge illegal unequal pay.
“If I am confirmed, I will take an oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States and the laws enacted under it, and that includes the Voting Rights Act,” said Mr. Dreiband, a private attorney who previously served as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s general counsel.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, asked if Mr. Dreiband would remain committed to that pledge even if it put him at odds with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — which was established by Mr. Trump to investigate his claims of rampant voter fraud, as well as barriers to voting.
“I’m not familiar with what the Election Integrity Commission is doing,” Mr. Dreiband said. “What I will do is enforce the laws within the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Division, whether anybody likes it or not.”
Mr. Dreiband also said he was not aware of any data supporting the claim that millions of people illegally voted.
Picking someone to lead the Civil Rights Division has been controversial in recent years under both Democratic and Republican administrations, with each side accused of trying to impose a partisan agenda on the nominee.
The post is seen as critical to civil rights groups, who question the Trump administration’s commitment to their issues.
For groups that already opposed Mr. Dreiband’s nomination, the answers he provided at Wednesday’s hearing were not enough to win them over.
“When given the opening to dismiss or condemn the myth perpetuated that widespread voter fraud is a serious problem, he essentially punted and treated that like an open question,” said Kyle Barry, senior policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “That is unacceptable because that is a lie told to undermine voter rights.”
In the wake of deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, both Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, wanted to hear how Mr. Dreiband would enforce hate crimes laws.
“The events of Charlottesville were, I thought, a terrible tragedy and a disgrace,” Mr. Dreiband said. “As Americans, we should never tolerate the kind of hatred and violence that was on display there.”
Mr. Dreiband said he intends to zealously enforce hate crime laws and said he was encouraged to see Attorney General Jeff Sessions announce a civil rights investigation into the events that unfurled in Charlottesville.
If confirmed, Mr. Dreiband would oversee the federal investigation.
Mr. Dreiband, a partner at Jones Day law firm, has specialized in representing businesses in litigation over employment discrimination, whistleblower claims, and wage and hour investigations.
In private practice he was part of the legal team that represented the University of North Carolina after the Obama administration sued, challenging the school’s adherence to the state’s “bathroom law” restricting transgender people’s access to public restrooms of their choice.
From 2003 to 2005 Mr. Dreiband served as general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal law preventing employer discrimination against workers.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, five former EEOC officials, including former chairwomen Cari Dominguez and Naomi Earp, wrote to praise his “zealous pursuit of significant civil rights cases on behalf of workers who had experienced discrimination.”
Democratic lawmakers pressed Mr. Dreiband on testimony he gave to a Senate committee in 2008 in which he expressing opposition to a portion of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the statute of limitations on filing a discriminatory pay claim.
“Why would you be opposed to equal pay for equal work?” Mrs. Feinstein asked.
Mr. Dreiband said his testimony was not meant to opposed equal pay but rather to offer a broader approach than the bill the committee was considering at the time.
“I support equal pay for all Americans without respect to their gender or race or anything else,” he said.
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