“May it please the Court. My name is Sharon McGowan, and I represent the United States.”
The first time I spoke those words standing at a courtroom podium as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, I could feel the goosebumps under my sleeves.
When Donald Trump won the election, my reaction was one shared by many of my fellow career civil servants. Did that really happen, and what does it mean? Maybe all of his campaign rhetoric was just inflammatory words designed to grab headlines? But then, in one of his first acts as president-elect, Donald Trump selected Jeff Sessions as his nominee for attorney general. In that moment, I felt the ground rumbling beneath my feet, and knew that I would need to find more solid ground from which I could continue my work as a civil-rights advocate.
I knew it would be bad, but Sessions’ assault on the mission of the DOJ has been far worse than I could have expected.
Since his confirmation, the civil-rights community has been reeling. He rescinded federal guidance regarding trans students. Signaled that Black lives don’t matter when he sent out a memo directing DOJ to “immediately review” all existing and contemplated consent decrees with state and local law enforcement.
Under Sessions, DOJ has betrayed its obligation to defend voting rights, and has argued that LGBT workplace discrimination should be placed beyond the reach of federal law. Per Justice Department protocol, Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler signed off on these documents for the Civil Rights Division. But you didn’t need forensic expertise to see Sessions’ fingerprints all over them.
Now, Sessions has selected someone to do more of his dirty work for him. In tapping Eric Dreiband as his choice to lead the Civil Rights Division, Sessions reveals the depth of his disdain for civil rights.
LGBT people will feel the sting from the selection of a lawyer who opposed the Civil Rights Division when it sued North Carolina over its anti-LGBT law HB2.
Women will be horrified to learn that Dreiband testified against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a federal law designed to ensure that women could sue for discrimination even if their employer was able to keep that discrimination hidden. Dreiband was also part of the legal team that argued for an employer’s right to veto a woman’s decision to access birth control through her employer-provided health plan.
Advocates for older Americans will remember Dreiband for his congressional testimony against legislation that would have made it easier for older workers to prove age bias.
And supporters of racial justice are all too familiar with Dreiband for his repeated attacks on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for trying to root out hiring practices that have a disproportionately negative effect on people of color.
This is who Sessions has tapped to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
Former White House advisor Steve Bannon proudly touted the “deconstructionists” that were being tapped for senior posts in the Trump administration – people dedicated to bringing the agencies they had asked to lead to their knees. The selection of Eric Dreiband to lead the Civil Rights Division is further evidence that Sessions is the biggest deconstructionist of them all.
The Justice Department deserved better than Sessions, but that ship has sailed (for now, at least).
But the ship has yet not sailed on the Dreiband nomination. My former colleagues in the Civil Rights Division are wonderful men and women of all political shapes and sizes who know that we are a stronger nation when the civil rights of all are respected, and they deserve better than Dreiband. Because they are not able to defend themselves, I am speaking out on their behalf.
At this moment in our history, as our President pardons racist criminals whom the Civil Rights Division used to prosecute, the Senate has an important choice to make. It is not too late for senators to finally start demanding that nominees be qualified to lead, rather than destroy, the agencies to which they have been named.
Will they make clear that this is a country that believes in civil rights for all, and not merely those whom the President holds close? Or will the Senate once again put its head in the sand? History will be watching.
Sharon McGowan is the Director of Strategy for Lambda Legal, the nation's oldest and largest national legal organization working to promote the civil rights of LGBT people. Prior to joining Lambda Legal, Sharon was the Principal Deputy Chief of the Appellate Section of the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice.