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Civil Rights Lawyer Seen as Pick for EEOC’s Open Democratic Seat

Dec. 20, 2019, 4:58 PM

A prominent LGBT rights lawyer is slated to be the choice for a Democratic seat on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the same time that the agency is locked in a Supreme Court battle with the Justice Department over sexual orientation and gender identity bias.

Jocelyn Samuels, who runs a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights think tank in California, is set to be nominated for one of two open seats on the commission, according to a staffer for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a Democratic aide, and other sources familiar with the situation. Alexander is chairman of the committee that would review Samuels’ nomination, along with the pending nomination of Labor Department official Keith Sonderling to fill a Republican seat on the EEOC.

The White House has not formally announced Samuels as the nominee. Her potential nomination comes as the EEOC and the Justice Department are on opposing sides of a landmark Supreme Court LGBT rights debate. The court is expected to rule by June in a trio of cases over whether sexual orientation and gender identity bias on the job are banned as part of a federal prohibition on sex discrimination.

Samuels is currently executive director of the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, a public policy think tank focused on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. The former EEOC attorney held several civil-rights-focused positions during the Obama administration, including serving as director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Health & Human Services Department and as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. Samuels is credited with crafting regulations to ban LGBT discrimination in federally funded health care services.

The EEOC, a five-seat agency that enforces workplace anti-discrimination and harassment laws, has been without a full panel for the entirety of President Donald Trump’s administration. Attempts to fill the open seats have encountered prolonged nomination periods, despite urging from both the business lobby and worker advocates to expedite confirmation of members to the commission.

Sources familiar with Samuels’ nomination process say they’re waiting on the White House to formally nominate Samuels. Minority-party seats on the EEOC have traditionally been run through Democratic Senate leadership before being announced by the White House. The sources familiar with that process said all that remains is for the White House to make an announcement, but the timeline was not immediately clear.

A White House spokesman declined to comment. An EEOC spokesman referred Bloomberg Law to the White House.

Samuels’ background as an LGBT rights advocate could create hurdles to confirmation in the Republican-majority Senate. Former EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum was nominated for a third term with the agency when a small group of Republican lawmakers led by Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Lee (Utah) blocked her nomination, citing concerns about Feldblum’s ability to balance religious freedom and LGBT rights.

Feldblum in January decided to not pursue another term.

The EEOC is currently grappling with a host of major policy issues, including how to proceed with an initiative to require employers to submit pay data to the commission, and what to do with information already submitted. Labor advocates and the business community believe a full commission could better handle those issues.

Nominees in Holding Pattern

The open Democratic seat at the EEOC is part of a lengthy list of vacancies at the Labor Department, National Labor Relations Board, and other labor agencies that have gone unfilled during muhc of the Trump administration.

Trump and the Senate have prioritized confirmation of federal judges over federal agency nominees. The typical year-end rush to conclude legislative business this year has also seen agency nominations overshadowed by impeachment proceedings and efforts to pass government funding legislation to avoid a Dec. 20 government shutdown and approve the new North American trade deal.

Current EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon waited almost two years before receiving a confirmation vote. Sonderling has been awaiting a confirmation hearing since he was nominated in July.

Without Samuels’ nomination, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is also unlikely to move on Sonderling’s pending nomination. The committee had been waiting on the White House to formally announce a Democratic nominee so Sonderling and the Democrat could be paired in a nominations package, an aide for Alexander previously said.

But Sonderling’s nomination was not held over this week before the Senate left for holiday recess, meaning he must be renominated in the new year.

Samuels didn’t respond to requests for comment.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com; Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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