To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel
Re: Striking Progress on Judicial Nominations
Date: September 22, 2014
So far, 2014 has been a banner year for effectively pushing back against the Republican obstruction of judicial nominees that we have seen since the moment Barack Obama took office. The past few months have shown just how much progress America can make in ending the deliberate sabotage of the third branch of government so that our nation’s federal court system can do what the Founders intended it to do: Protect every person’s rights and ensure that everyone can have their day in court.
Since the day that George W. Bush left office, Republicans have sought to leave as many judgeships as possible vacant for as long as possible, apparently in the hopes of maximizing the next (Republican) president’s opportunities to nominate his or her own judges and impose a right-wing ideology on America’s federal courts. With that goal they have simply blocked confirmation votes, regardless of the nominee. The result has been long backlogs in courts across the country and serious delay in providing justice for many Americans.
Under Senate rules, unanimous consent is needed to schedule a confirmation vote for a judicial nominee – something that used to be regularly granted to nominees with strong bipartisan support, as most lower court judges have had. But for the first time, Republicans under President Obama have routinely refused to allow timely votes on nearly every nominee – even the vast majority who have little or no Republican opposition – effectively but invisibly filibustering just about every one of them. Only after months of delay would Republicans finally consent to a vote. In all other cases, the only way to break the logjam has been for Democrats to file a cloture motion to end the filibuster, a burdensome and time-consuming practice, and (until recently) one requiring a supermajority of 60 votes. So for the first five years of the Obama presidency, confirmations were regularly delayed for no reason, usually out of public view, for months longer than necessary. For instance, Richard Taranto was confirmed to the Federal Circuit unanimously, but the Senate was not allowed to hold a vote until 347 days after his committee approval; Republicans never publicly explained why they would not allow him a vote earlier.
Overcoming Obstruction in 2014
This year, things have changed. By late 2013, five years of unprecedented obstruction had climaxed in a declaration by GOP senators that they would filibuster any nominee for the critically important and understaffed District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, no matter who the nominee might be, Senate Democrats concluded that the Senate and the nation would be significantly damaged if this were allowed to continue. The chamber responded to the exceptional obstruction by reforming its procedural rules. Going forward, cloture votes to end filibusters of executive and judicial nominees (with the exception of those to the Supreme Court) would require a majority of senators voting, rather than 60 votes.
Now, when Republicans refuse to consent to a vote, Majority Leader Reid files a cloture petition and sets a vote. Taking advantage of the change in Senate rules, Democrats have been able to defeat the GOP filibusters with a simple majority vote. While Republicans have not consented to even one judicial confirmation vote in 2014, they also have not been able to stop the Senate from voting on any of them. And despite the significant time that Republicans force the Senate to spend on each confirmation – drawn-out roll-call cloture votes, post-cloture time for debate of 30 hours for circuit court nominees and two hours for district court nominees (a debate that usually does not occur despite the time set aside for it), then time-consuming roll-call confirmation votes – Reid and the Democrats have persevered. Rather than wait for months longer than needed after committee approval before having a floor vote, the Senate has been able to act in a more timely – and appropriate – manner.
One of the basic and most important responsibilities of the U.S. Senate under the Constitution is to vote whether to confirm judges and keep the federal judiciary functioning. As of 2014, the Senate has no longer been blocked from doing that.
The figure below shows the dramatic drop in how long the average nominee has had to wait for a confirmation vote after approval by the Judiciary Committee as a result of the rules change:
With the Senate freed to do its job, the number of confirmation votes has grown significantly.
This has ameliorated the intentionally generated vacancy crisis that has hobbled our courts since President Obama took office. There were 54 vacancies when Obama was inaugurated in 2009. With the Senate blocked from holding timely confirmation votes, that number went to historic highs, skyrocketing to 100 by the end of the year. When the 111th Congress ended in December of 2010, Republicans blocked confirmation votes for 19 qualified nominees who had been approved by the Judiciary Committee, the overwhelming majority of whom had been approved unanimously or with almost unanimous support. As a result, 2011 opened with 95 vacancies – and with a needless bottleneck of nominations that delayed confirmation votes for all nominees down the line. With Republicans preventing the Senate from confirming even consensus nominees, it counted as a major accomplishment if the number of vacancies dipped into the low 80s, or even the 70s, as it sometimes did.
As a result, at the beginning of this year, our federal court system was suffering from 92 vacancies. And now? As of September 21, we’re down to 57 circuit and district court vacancies, just a few more than when Obama took office. This is a dramatic and long overdue drop.
Supreme Court and Circuit Courts:
Undoing the Damage of the Bush Years
Our Constitution and our laws protect our right to vote, to have a workplace free of discrimination, to get married, to make our own reproductive decisions, to hold corporations accountable when they unlawfully injure or cheat us, and to have a voice in our democracy. But those rights don’t mean anything if we don’t have effective courts – and judges – to vindicate them when they are impinged.
Knowing the important role federal courts play in shaping our laws and guaranteeing – or frustrating – our basic rights, President Bush and his supporters set out to put as many far right ideologues on the federal appellate courts as possible. The most controversial of his court nominees are busy re-making law across the land.
Most notoriously, John Roberts and Samuel Alito have joined with Reagan and Bush-41 nominees Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy to give hard-right ideologues a frequent 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. They have regularly bent the law and confounded logic in order to rule in favor of the powerful in case after the case, rewriting our Constitution and federal laws. Citizens United, Shelby County, and Hobby Lobby are just a few of the growing number of cases where they have used the federal bench as a platform to transform the country to fit their personal political ideologies, notwithstanding what the Constitution and our laws actually say.
While the Supreme Court is extremely important and well known, it only hears around 75 cases a year. Most Americans in federal courts have their cases decided at the district or circuit level. Circuit court rulings have an enormous impact on the law, and only a tiny portion of them are reconsidered at the Supreme Court. That is why George W. Bush and his partisans spent so much effort to confirm ideologues like Janice Rogers Brown, who now holds a lifetime position on the D.C. Circuit. She wrote a 2012 opinion holding that graphic warnings on cigarette packages violate the tobacco companies’ free speech rights. She joined a 2013 opinion striking down a National Labor Relations Board rule requiring employers to post workers’ legal rights, framing it as “compelled speech” indistinguishable from forcing schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance or requiring drivers to display a political message (Live Free or Die) on their license plates. She even defended the ideology of the discredited Lochner era in a 2012 concurrence, writing that courts’ deference to everyday economic and business regulations “means property is at the mercy of the pillagers.”
In contrast to ideologues like Brown, President Obama has named judges characterized by their fidelity to the Constitution and our laws, and the impact on ordinary Americans has been enormous. For instance, the full D.C. Circuit, which now has four Obama nominees among its eleven active judges, this month vacated a widely criticized panel ruling by two conservative judges striking down a key subsidies provision of the Affordable Care Act. The legal argument against the subsidies has been widely recognized as weak, with a transparently political motive. On the same day of the DC Circuit’s panel ruling, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit had upheld the law. Obama nominee Andre Davis accurately described what the far right plaintiffs are seeking judicial allies to do:
[They want] our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.
As that one example illustrates, the D.C. Circuit is hardly the only one of our nation’s 13 federal circuit courts that looks very different today from when Bush left office. Where there was then only one circuit with a majority of its active judges nominated by Democratic presidents, today there are nine.
Especially this year, supported by the Senate rules change, progress has been remarkable. The 113th Congress has confirmed 23 circuit court judges. One would have to go back to the 99th Congress in 1985-1986 to see that many circuit court judges confirmed during a single Congress.
The past year has seen the confirmation of nominees like Michelle Friedland (9th Circuit), Pam Harris (4th Circuit), and Nina Pillard (D.C. Circuit), jurists who understand the impact of the law on everyday Americans, who cherish our constitutional principles of equality and liberty, and who don’t see the federal courts as just another part of government that can be used to enhance corporate power.
If the past few months have shown us anything, it is this: Standing up to bullies works. The White House has made judicial nominations that it can be proud of, and Senate Democrats have overcome years of Republican obstruction to get these nominees confirmed. Despite the GOP’s herculean efforts to prevent President Obama from exercising the powers he was elected – and re-elected – to use, he is successfully restoring balance to the nation’s courts. For the first time, the number of courtroom vacancies is close to where it was when Obama took office, and highly qualified jurists are taking their places on our federal circuit and district courts.
And the progress isn’t over. An additional 16 judicial nominees have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee and are currently eligible for a floor vote – a floor vote that could have been held before the Senate left town for the elections. Several more have had hearings and should be ready for consideration by the Committee and the full Senate during the lame duck session that is scheduled to begin on November 12. And the White House just sent additional nominees to the Senate that could easily have hearings and a Committee vote during the lame duck session as well. There is absolutely no excuse for not holding confirmation votes on any of these committee-approved nominees by the end of this Congress.
During the last two years of the Obama Administration and the years that follow, we can be sure of certain things: The courts will remain critically important, and progressives will have to fight hard to protect those courts and keep them functioning effectively, with judges who won’t seek to use their positions to short-circuit our most important rights.
The astounding show of Republican recklessness that led to last month's government shutdown made one thing very clear. The new Republican Party -- the one ruled by the Tea Party -- isn't interested in making our government work. They want to break it.
Now, as if shutting down the government of the United States, furloughing hundreds of thousands of government employees, wasting billions of dollars and threatening to wreck America's economy wasn't enough, Republicans in Congress have set their sights on a new target: our justice system.
Yesterday, Senate Republicans took their campaign against our government to a whole new level when they blocked the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is widely considered to be the nation's second-highest court behind the Supreme Court.
Pillard is one of President Obama's three nominees to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, which is currently operating with nearly one-third of its active judgeships vacant. All three nominees have extraordinary professional qualifications. All three have support from across the ideological spectrum. Yet Senate Republicans are vowing to filibuster all three simply because they were nominated by President Obama.
One of the most basic functions of the U.S. Senate is to provide "advice and consent" to the president on his nominations to executive agencies and to the federal courts. For most of our country's history, the Senate has generally taken this constitutional order responsibly, using its power to block only nominees whom senators found unqualified or dangerously far out of the mainstream. That is, until now.
The same party that shut down the government in an attempt to nullify a duly-enacted law that it does not like is now trying to prevent a twice-elected president from filling vacancies on an important court -- a duty entrusted to him by the Constitution.
There's a reason Republican obstructionists have targeted the D.C. Circuit. The court has the last word on important federal laws and administrative rules on issues ranging from clean air regulations to workers' rights to cigarette labeling requirements to presidential recess appointments. Basically, just about any area that we regulate through our federal government is going to be affected by the D.C. Circuit. And it is currently dominated by conservative ideologues: nine of the 14 judges on the court (including "active" judges and senior judges who participate in panel decisions) were nominated by Republican presidents seeking to remake the courts in their ideological image.
Republicans want to keep it this way. President Obama has nominated five people to the court, yet Senate Republicans have allowed only one of these nominees to so much as receive a confirmation vote. By comparison, the Senate confirmed four of George W. Bush's nominees to the court and eight of Ronald Reagan's. In fact, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh seats that Republicans today demand remain vacant are ones that they ensured were filled when George W. Bush was president.
To give you an idea of just how conservative this court is as a result, just this month a George W. Bush nominee and a George H.W. Bush nominee ruled that employers who oppose birth control should be able to deny their employees access to affordable contraception through their insurance plans -- an absurd twisting of the true meaning of religious liberty. A few months ago, the court ruled that a law requiring employers to display a poster listing employees' legal rights violates the free speech rights of the employers. No, really!
Unable to win national elections, Republicans are trying to hold on to what power they still have -- and that includes control of the powerful D.C. Circuit. Just like they couldn't accept that the Affordable Care Act was the law of the land, the Tea Party won't admit that Americans chose President Obama to be the one making picks to the federal courts.
The Tea Party thinks that it has some sort of intellectual property claim on the U.S. Constitution. But sometimes I wonder if its leaders have even read it.
WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans today voted to deny Nina Pillard a yes-or-no vote on her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Pillard is one of three nominees to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit; Senate Republicans previously filibustered nominee Patricia Millett and they have indicated that they will also block the nomination of Robert Wilkins to the court. Republicans signaled they would filibuster all three nominees before President Obama had even announced their names.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins were the only Republicans who voted to allow Pillard’s nomination to proceed to a yes-or-no vote. They were also the only two Republicans to support allowing a vote on Millett’s nomination.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, issued the following statement:
“First, Republicans in Congress threw a temper tantrum about health care reform that shut down the government and threatened our economic stability. Now, they’re threatening to keep one-third of the seats on a critical court vacant just because they don’t like the president who is charged with nominating judges.
“This stunningly irresponsible approach to governing shortchanges the individuals and businesses seeking justice from our courts and makes a mockery of our judicial system.
“Nina Pillard is an extraordinarily qualified nominee who deserves a fair, yes-or-no vote from the Senate. Instead, her nomination is caught up in the GOP’s latest attempt to nullify existing laws by obstructing their implementation. Pillard, and American voters, deserve better.”
To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: November 12, 2013
Re: The Nullification Strategy: How Senate Republicans Abuse the Filibuster to Undermine the Courts, Executive Agencies, and American Voters
Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Dean of the Senate and one of the most steadfast protectors of its traditions, announced that for the first time in his decades-long Senate career he was considering supporting a change to the Senate’s filibuster rules.
Leahy’s reluctant change of heart is a sign of the extent to which Senate Republicans have abused the rules of the Senate not only to oppose legislation and nominees with whom they disagree, but to change the rules of government, using obstruction to nullify laws and agencies that they lack the electoral mandate to overturn or eliminate through legitimate means.
Senate Republicans under President Obama have turned the Constitution's command of "advice and consent" into a prerogative to obstruct and nullify -- a violation of the Constitution's spirit that ignores the will of American voters and threatens to undermine the functioning of all three branches of government.
Using what Sen. Tim Kaine has called the "decapitation strategy," Senate Republicans routinely deny confirmation votes to qualified, widely respected nominees simply because the GOP wants to cripple the agency or court to which the individual was nominated.
This strategy will reach a new low today if Senate Republicans succeed in blocking an up-or-down vote on the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as they have indicated that they intend to do.
How the Nullification Strategy Works
In June, President Obama nominated three highly qualified individuals to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court. On Oct. 31, Republicans blocked a vote on the nomination of Patricia Millett. Today, they are expected to deny cloture on the nomination of Nina Pillard. And they have indicated that they will do the same to President Obama's third nominee to the court, Robert Wilkins.
Senate Republicans have made clear that they are blocking votes on these nominees simply because they do not want President Obama to be able to fill vacancies on this particular court. In fact, the Senate’s GOP leadership signaled their intention to stonewall all three nominees before they even knew who they would be – a clear sign that their obstruction has nothing to do with the nominees’ records or qualifications.
Similarly, Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, preventing the agency from achieving a quorum; in so doing, they successfully sabotaged enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act without actually amending the law. They refused for a full two years to confirm a head to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which prevented it from exercising some of its most important authorities; they admitted they had no problem with the nominee (Richard Cordray) but instead wanted to force Democrats to change the law and weaken the newly-created agency.
And of course, President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, is in the same position after Senate Republicans blocked a vote on his nomination, making him the first sitting member of Congress to be blocked from confirmation to an Administration position since before the Civil War.
Notably, a large number of the nominees who have faced politically-motivated blockades have been women and people of color. The blocked D.C. Circuit nominees are two women and an African-American man. Several months ago, Republicans blocked another woman, Caitlin Halligan, from a seat on the court, which will make Pillard the third woman this year that Republicans have blocked from the D.C. Circuit.
Why Republicans Have Targeted the D.C. Circuit
There is a reason that Senate Republicans have chosen the D.C. Circuit as an object of their obstruction: The court, which regularly reviews decisions by federal agencies on a broad range of issues important to the public at large, is currently dominated by Republican-nominated jurists who routinely undercut the ability of federal agencies to protect workers and consumers.
Although the court's eight active judges are divided evenly between Democratic and Republican nominees, five of the court’s six senior judges are Republican appointees. These senior judges sit on the three-judge panels that do most of the court’s work, and maintain a strong influence over the court. So when you draw a three-judge panel, there’s a high likelihood that it will have a conservative majority because Republican nominees outnumber Democratic ones 9-5, a nearly 2-1 ratio. In fact, 15 of the last 19 judges confirmed to the court were nominated by Republican presidents. That includes four George W. Bush nominees, three George H.W. Bush nominees, and eight Ronald Reagan nominees. By contrast, the Senate has confirmed just one of President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit, Sri Srinivasan.
The conservative judges who currently dominate the D.C. Circuit have pushed an anti-regulatory, pro-corporate ideological agenda that clearly appeals to Senate Republicans. In just the past few years, Republican-nominated judges on the court have blocked EPA efforts to limit cross-state air pollution, defeated cigarette labeling requirements, and used severely flawed reasoning to declare that requiring employers to post a notice informing employees of their right to unionize violates the free speech rights of the employers. The D.C. Circuit has also aided Senate Republicans in their agenda of obstruction, voiding the president’s appointments of NRLB Members whom the president had been forced to recess-appoint after the GOP had refused to let the agency reach a quorum.
After he voted to block Millett’s nomination, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois admitted that preserving the DC Circuit’s rightward slant was the reason for his party’s obstruction. "We're worried about that court being a significant bastion for administrative law cases on Obamacare,” he told the Huffington Post.
President Obama's nominees to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit are all impeccably qualified. Judge Wilkins is already a federal judge, serving on the US District Court for the District of Columbia, and has an impressive background in civil rights and financial law. Professor Pillard is a widely respected attorney who has personally argued and briefed key Supreme Court cases – including key women’s equality cases -- brought or defended by government lawyers from Republican administrations, and Republican-appointed justices often authored the majority opinions in her favor. She co-directs a universally admired nonpartisan institute that prepares attorneys to argue before the Supreme Court. Millett is one of the most respected appellate attorneys in the nation, and has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court.
Yet all three are facing filibusters simply because they were nominated by President Obama.
Stunningly, Senate Republicans have attempted to turn the tables on the president, accusing him of "court-packing" for attempting to fill congressionally-designated judicial vacancies with qualified nominees. This argument is laughably transparent: President Obama has nominated qualified individuals to seats that have been filled by all of his recent predecessors, even when the court's caseload was lower than it is today.
The Constitution mandates that the president name and the Senate fairly review nominees to federal judgeships created by Congress. President Obama has done his job by nominating three extraordinarily qualified nominees to the D.C. Circuit. But the Senate GOP is refusing to fulfill its duty of "advice and consent,” and is instead attempting to nullify the law and pretend the court has only eight seats.
This is the same strategy that House Republicans used when they shut down the federal government and threatened a default on the country’s debt in an attempt to bring down a law that had been enacted by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. Unable to achieve their preferred policies by winning elections, Republicans are attempting to nullify the results of those elections through extreme obstruction.
This abuse of the filibuster has now led even one of the Senate's most fervent institutionalists to consider eliminating the minority's ability to block nominees -- a fundamental change to an institution that less than ten years ago agreed to use the filibuster only under "extraordinary circumstances."
Senate Republicans must reconsider their nullification strategy, or risk harming not only the courts and executive agencies they are targeting, but the institution of the Senate itself.
Right-wing groups determined to paint D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Nina Pillard as a “scary,” “radical” and “militant” feminist have taken to using an unexpected weapon: a landmark women’s rights decision written by the late conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Ten years ago, the state of Nevada had challenged the Family and Medical Leave Act after a male state employee had tried to take his FMLA-sanctioned leave to care for his ailing wife. Pillard joined with the Bush administration to bring the case, Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, to the Supreme Court and successfully argued that the FMLA should be upheld.
In his majority opinion in the case, the Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that Congress had been justified in passing the FMLA to combat what he called the “significant” problem of women facing employment discrimination because employers assumed they would have to take more time off than men to care for their families. He wrote:
Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied men similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees. Those perceptions, in turn, Congress reasoned, lead to subtle discrimination that may be difficult to detect on a case-by-case basis.
Providing men with family leave, the Hibbs court reasoned, would help to change underlying gendered patterns of family care and thereby help to counteract “a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination” – a cycle that “fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s [lack of] commitment to work and their [lesser] value as employees,” as well as “parallel stereotypes” of men’s overriding workplace commitment that routinely obstruct men’s equal access to family benefits that could encourage them to spend more time parenting. The radical implication of Hibbs is that we cannot end sex discrimination outside the home without changing our beliefs about women’s and men’s differential attachments to family care within it, and we cannot change those beliefs without actually shifting the allocation of care work within the family.
Fast forward to today, when Pillard is one of President Obama’s three nominees to fill vacancies on the influential D.C. Circuit. Right-wing groups, upset by Pillard’s success defending women’s rights in the courts -- she also wrote the legal briefs that convinced the Supreme Court to open the Virginia Military Institute to women – are now looking for any reason to keep her off the court, and have seized on Hibbs.
This summer, the Family Research Council sent out an email to its members attacking Pillard for saying that assumptions about women’s roles in the home present “a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination” – words that were, in fact, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist. The FRC later corrected itself, but the quote was so abhorrent to the far right that it stuck.
On his Crosstalk program yesterday, VCY America host Jim Schneider repeatedly cited the quote in an interview with the National Abstinence Education Association’s Valerie Huber, claiming that Pillard had argued “that in celebrating motherhood, society is creating a ‘self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination.’” Huber, in turn, took that as evidence that Pillard is indeed a “radical feminist.” The quote has also turned up in various conservative outlets.
We have no doubt that the FRC’s original misreading and then VCY’s face-value reading of FRC’s old email were honest mistakes. But this is a revealing game of telephone. The fact that a straight-forward statement about sex discrimination written by one of the most conservative justices in recent history engenders such anger on the Right says much more about those attacking Pillard than it does about their target.
Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to approve the nomination of Georgetown Law professor Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is often considered to be the nation’s second-highest court. The party-line vote wasn’t exactly a surprise – Republicans have decided they don’t want President Obama to fill any of the D.C. Circuit’s three vacancies, so have voted against both nominees who have come before them so far – but the content of at least some GOP senators' objections to Pillard was notable.
Specifically, both Republican senators who chose to speak on their decision to vote against Pillard went out of their way to object to Pillard’s record on women’s equality.
Yes, the Republican “rebranding” effort is going so well that they are now threatening to hold up a judicial nominee because she believes that men and women should be equal in the eyes of the law and has been very successful in arguing that view in the courts.
Pillard has a long record of working with Republicans and Democrats to defend women’s equality: She worked with the Bush administration to successfully defend the Family and Medical Leave Act in the Supreme Court and crafted the arguments that convinced the Supreme Court to open the Virginia Military Institute to women (which earned her the respect of, among others, the head of the school who was at the time opposed to allowing women in).
She also has worked on women’s equality issues as an academic, including questioning abstinence-only education that presents a double standard to boys and girls…which is what has sent the far right into a fit.
At yesterday's committee vote on Pillard’s nomination, both Sen. Chuck Grassley (the ranking Republican on the committee) and Sen. Orrin Hatch lifted talking points from right-wing activists like the Family Research Council, Phyllis Schlafly and Ed Whelan of the National Review to attack the nominee’s academic writings on reproductive rights and abstinence education and to even, bizarrely, question whether she appreciates the “benefits of marriage.”
And then every single Republican on the committee voted against allowing her nomination to go to the full Senate for a vote.
To put this in context, Republican senators including Grassley and Hatch were quick to defend demand the confirmation of George W. Bush judicial nominees who made rape jokes and belonged to clubs that excluded women and espoused any number of offensive views, claiming that they could hold these personal views and still be fair judges. As PFAW's Drew Courtney wrote in the Huffington Post yesterday:
Too often we're told that judicial nominations fights are too complicated, too subtle to get major national attention. Not this time. The Republican message is crystal clear: rape-joke making, gay-bashing, abuse-defending, discrimination-supporting, law-skirting, ideology-pushing Republican men are welcome to be judges in our federal courts.
Women who expect to be treated as equals are not.
Georgetown Law professor Nina Pillard, who has had a long and impressive career in law and public service, was approved today by the Senate Judiciary Committee to serve on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Her nomination now goes to the full Senate.
Scores of people and organizations who have worked with Professor Pillard or observed her work have written to the Senate in support of her nomination. Her supporters include:
Alumni of the Virginia Military Institute, which Pillard helped open to women:
VMI gauges its success as an institution by measuring the societal contributions of its alumni. Professor Pillard would rank high for her work to open VMI to female cadets. The case was initiated by the George H.W. Bush Administration and made its way to the Supreme Court during Professor Pillard’s tenure at the office of the Solicitor General of the United States. Professor Pillard drafted the five Supreme Court briefs for the United States and her winning arguments opened VMI’s doors for women who have become leaders in the armed forces, elsewhere in public service, and in the private sector.
Josiah Bunting III, superindent of the Virginia Military Institute when women were first admitted:
During the course of the United States v. Virginia case, I was impressed by Pillard’s fairness and rigor. She respected others’ strongly held views about male-only education at VMI, and I always felt that while we had opposing positions at the time, she comported herself with integrity and understanding — qualities that distinguish the best judges at all levels.
A bipartisan group of former attorneys of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, where Pillard served for two years:
We believe that Ms. Pillard has the skill, character, and objectivity that would make her a superlative judge on the D.C. Circuit. She was a respected leader and trusted advisor in OLC, valued for her fair-minded and meticulous approach to legal questions of all sorts. She is an exemplary nominee whom we wholeheartedly endorse.
Dozens of retired members of the armed forces:
Our experience advocating for the full participation of women in the armed forces has shown us that women, indeed, are suited for rigorous military training, service, and leadership. Our military and our nation benefit when both women and men are able to fully contribute to the defense of our country. We support Professor Pillard’s nomination because her accomplishments and credentials demonstrate that she has the qualifications to be a federal
appellate judge, and because her dedication to principles of equality demonstrates that she will be a great one. We urge you to give her a swift and fair hearing, and vote to approve her nomination.
In her legal advocacy and scholarship, Professor Pillard shows a clear understanding offundamental distinctions between the roles of courts and the political branches, and between law and culture, morality, politics or other important sources ofnorms that guide and constrain human behavior. Throughout her work, she has shown an appreciation ofnuance and respect for opposing viewpoints, grounded in a profound commitment to fair process and fidelity to the law.
In short, Professor Pillard is a talented advocate, a brilliant legal mind, a sensible and moderate problem solver, and a careful thinker who has devoted her career to public service and work for others. We wholeheartedly urge that you confirm her to the D.C. Circuit.
Prominent prosecutors and law enforcement officials:
We urge her confirmation because she is unquestionably eminently qualified, and is a sensible and fairminded lawyer and scholar who has worked extensively with law enforcement in her career. She brings to the bench sensitivity to the compelling need for effective and legitimate law enforcement in the modern era. She stands for fidelity to the law above all, and has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the important, albeit limited, role of the courts in our federal system
I believe that Ms. Pillard has had invaluable work experience that makes her especially well-suited to the bench. While I do not know Ms. Pillard personally, others in the law enforcement community whom I know and respect are supporting her, and their views, combined with her superb experience and qualifications, convince me that she would make an excellent judge, especially on the DC Circuit, which requires someone with such experience and qualifications.
Based on our long and varied professional experience together, I know that Professor Pillard is exceptionally bright, a patient and unbiased listener, and a lawyer of great judgment and unquestioned integrity. We certainly do not agree on the merits of every issue, but Nina has always been fair, reasonable, and sensible in her judgments. She approaches faculty hiring, teaching and curriculum, and matters of faculty governance on their merits, without any ideological agenda--at times even against the tide of academic popularity to defend and respect different views and different types of people.
As we do not share academic specialties, I have not studied Professor Pillard's writings in full, but I know her to be a straight shooter when it comes to law and legal interpretation. She is a fair-minded thinker with enormous respect for the law and for the limited, and essential, role of the federal appellate judge-- qualities that make her well prepared to taken on the work of a D.C.
Circuit judge. I am confident that she would approach the judicial task of applying law to facts in a fair and meticulous manner.
Ms. Pillard’s record of achievement, and unanimous rating of Well-Qualified, the highest rating available, from the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, reflects her significant talents as an appellate litigator and scholar. Her legal career is remarkable for her accomplishments and the breadth and depth of her experience, and her reputation for fairmindedness, collegiality, and dedication to principles of equal justice is well founded.
WASHINGTON – People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker issued the following statement in response to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of the nomination of Georgetown Law professor Cornelia T.L. “Nina” Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Professor Pillard’s nomination is now with the full Senate, which I hope will give her the fair consideration that she deserves.
Professor Pillard is an exceptionally qualified nominee. She has earned enormous respect from her colleagues across the ideological spectrum in her career as an appellate attorney, where she crafted the arguments that convinced the Supreme Court to open the Virginia Military Institute to women and joined the Bush administration in successfully defending the Family and Medical Leave Act. She now serves as co-director of Georgetown’s renowned Supreme Court Institute, which on a pro bono basis helped prepare attorneys for every single Supreme Court argument in the last term – regardless of the side of the case they were on. Her national reputation as a supremely talented and consistently fair attorney is well-earned.
In addition, Professor Pillard would become just the sixth women confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court in its 120-year history.
In looking for excuses to avoid confirming Professor Pillard to this vacancy, some on the Right have attacked her academic work promoting the entirely mainstream notion that men and women should be treated equally under the law. The fact that in 2013 a nominee is being attacked for believing in women’s equality is just absurd.
We applaud the Judiciary Committee members who voted in support of this highly qualified nominee, and hope that the full Senate will review her qualifications and give her a fair yes-or-no confirmation vote.
Georgetown law professor Cornelia “Nina” Pillard, one of President Obama’s three nominees to fill vacancies on the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is one of the country’s most renowned women’s rights attorneys. She crafted the argument that convinced a nearly unanimous Supreme Court to open the Virginia Military Institute to women. She worked alongside Bush administration attorneys to successfully defend the Family and Medical Leave Act in the courts. She has opposed government policies that treat men and women differently based on outmoded stereotypes that harm both sexes.
So, of course, conservative activists and their Republican allies in Congress are calling her a “radical feminist" and threatening to filibuster her nomination.
In an interview with the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins Friday, National Review columnist Ed Whelan called Pillard a “radical feminist law professor” and insisted that she would be “the most left-wing judge in the history of the republic.”
Phyllis Schlafly – who, of course, also opposed the opening of VMI to women and the Family and Medical Leave Act – calls Pillard a “scary feminist.”
The Family Research Council has also gone after Pillard, skewing the meaning of her words and even citing her use of a phrase that was actually written by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist as evidence of her “militant feminism.”
And just this weekend, right-wing activist "Dr. Chaps" Gordon Klingenschmitt sent out an email to his backers attacking Pillard's support for women's rights, specifically charging that Pillard “attacked and questioned the Virginia Military Institute” when she argued that VMI should admit women.
Senate Republicans have picked up this line of attack. In Pillard’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee’s Republicans (all men) latched onto the nominee’s support of reproductive rights. When fellow nominee Robert Wilkins appeared before the committee last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley tried, unsuccessfully, to trick him into dissing Pillard’s writings.
So what exactly is it that makes Pillard such a “radical”/“militant”/“scary” feminist in the eyes of the Right?
In a series of columns last month, Whelan elaborated on what he meant. He takes particular issue with a 2007 law review article in which Pillard argues that many public school abstinence-only sex-ed curricula impose a double standard on girls – hardly a radical observation. She also specifically wrote that she took no position on the abstinence message itself. Nevertheless, Whelan and others have distorted this into the idea that she would strike down all abstinence programs as unconstitutional, which is not at all what she has said. In Pillard’s own words,
[The article] brings into focus those curricula's persistent, official promulgation of retrogressive, anti-egalitarian sexual ideologies-of male pleasure and female shame, male recreation and female responsibility, male agency and female passivity, and male personhood and female parenthood. I argue for a counter-stereotyping sex education that affirms women's and men's desire, sexual agency, and responsibility.
She explained her thoughts further in her hearing before the judiciary committee:
Let me say first, I'm a mother. I have two teenage children — one boy and one girl. If my children are being taught in sex education, I want both my children to be taught to say 'no,' not just my daughter. I want my son to be taught that, too. The article was very explicit in saying I don't see any constitutional objection … to abstinence-only education that does not rely upon and promulgate sex stereotypes.
This argument – that many government-funded sex-ed curricula promote harmful and regressive stereotypes that cheat girls – is what has made right-wing activists go ballistic.
Pillard has also made it exceedingly clear that she knows the difference between testing out legal theories in law review articles and applying them as a judge. As she said in her hearing, “Academics are paid to test the boundaries and look at the implications of things. As a judge, I would apply established law of the U.S. Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit” – a sentiment that many Republican senators echoed when they were defending Bush nominees who had in the past expressed opinions not consistent with existing law.
To put it simply, what conservatives object to about Pillard is that she believes in women’s equality and that she’s really, really good at making the legal case for it. In 2013 in the Republican Party, that’s what it takes to qualify as a “scary,” “radical” and “militant” feminist.
Now that we’re well into President Obama’s fifth year in office, there are no prizes for guessing what the GOP’s response is to a diverse slate of nominees to the critical DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
Obstruct. Obstruct. Obstruct.
Even before they were nominated, Republican Senators were laying the groundwork to block anyone nominated to the circuit. Now that President Obama has nominated three unquestionably qualified jurists with broad support from across the ideological spectrum…Republican leaders are still intent on denying them simple yes-or-no votes.
We’ve created a simple graphic to share on Facebook to let Republicans know you’re watching how they treat this diverse set of nominees. Click here to share.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee spent yesterday’s confirmation hearing on D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Nina Pillard harping on two points: first, that they think the D.C. Circuit doesn’t need its three vacancies filled, and second, that they think Pillard’s arguments as an academic mean she would disregard the law as a judge.
As it happens, when George W. Bush was the one nominating federal judges, the very same senators held the exact opposite view on both of these issues.
As People For the American Way has extensively shown, the argument that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t need judges holds no water – in fact, Bush nominees Thomas Griffith and John Roberts (now Chief Justice) were confirmed to the D.C. Circuit when each active judge’s caseload was significantly lower than it is today.
And Republican attacks on Pillard’s academic writings also directly contradict their previous statements on Bush nominees with academic records. As Pillard noted in her hearing, "Academics are paid to test the boundaries and look at the implications of things. As a judge, I would apply established law of the U.S. Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit."
Just a few years ago, Republican senators agreed. On the nomination of Tenth Circuit judge Michael McConnell, who took a number of far-right stands as an academic, including disagreeing with a Supreme Court decision declaring that a university ban on interracial dating constituted racial discrimination, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said, “The diversity of backgrounds and points of view are often the stitches holding together the fabric of our freedoms.”
“Surely, we can’t vote for or against a nominee on whether they agree with us on any number of a host of moral and religious issues, ” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions said of Eleventh Circuit nominee William Pryor, a far-right culture warrior who was outspoken in opposition to gay rights, women’s rights and the separation of church and state.
Then-Sen. Jim Demint defended D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, one of the most outspoken conservative ideologues on the federal bench today, by saying, “A person with strong beliefs and personal convictions should not be barred from being a judge. In fact, I would rather have an honest liberal serve as a judge than one who has been neutered by fear of public opinion.”
And before the Senate confirmed Arkansas District Court Judge J. Leon Holmes, who used Todd Akin’s line about pregnancy from rape before Todd Akin did, Hatch told concerned colleagues, “This man is a very religious man who has made it more than clear that he will abide by the law even when he differs with it.”
These Bush nominees held positions that were clearly far out of the mainstream, yet Senate Republicans demanded and got yes-or-no confirmation votes on them, helping Bush to shift the federal judiciary far to the right.
What some Judiciary Committee Republicans objected to at yesterday’s hearings is what they apparently see as Pillard’s excessive support for women’s equality, both as an attorney and an academic. Pillard won the Supreme Court case opening the Virginia Military Institute to women and worked with Bush administration officials to successfully defend the Family and Medical Leave Act. She has strongly defended reproductive rights and criticized abstinence-only education that sends different messages to boys and girls. It’s this record that her Republican opponents have distorted beyond recognition.
By any measure, Pillard is well within the mainstream, and has made it very clear that she understands that the role of a judge is to apply existing law regardless of one’s personal views. But while Senate Republicans made plenty of excuses for Bush nominees who were far outside the mainstream, they are accusing Pillard of being just too much of a women's rights supporter to fairly apply the law.