Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the nomination of Cornelia “Nina” T.L. Pillard to the influential Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Pillard is one of President Obama's three nominees to fill vacancies on the court, which is currently operating with nearly one-third of its seats empty.
Pillard is a fair-minded, nationally recognized law professor and experienced appellate lawyer with an extraordinary record of service. She has won historic Supreme Court victories: she opened one of the last male-only public colleges to women, and protected the Family and Medical Leave Act. She has served two tours as a high-level government lawyer and is currently a distinguished and beloved professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Her expertise in appellate litigation led to her appointment as a co-director of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute, which assists lawyers from around the country in preparing for Supreme Court arguments, without regard to which side they represent. Her record demonstrates her superb character, judgment, and fundamental commitment to upholding the principles of our Constitution and laws.
Right-wing bloggers are already making nasty and untrue attacks on Professor Pillard, but here are the facts:
The National Review Online cited unnamed sources in a blog calling Professor Pillard a “complete ideologue.” In reality, Professor Pillard is a fair-minded, highly accomplished litigator with broad experience and an outstanding reputation for public service. She has litigated major constitutional cases brought or defended by Republican Administrations, and Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents have often written the majority opinions agreeing with Professor Pillard’s legal arguments. And prominent officials in Republican-appointed officials are supporting her nomination.
FACT: Because of Pillard’s unbiased approach to the law, which has earned her the respect of her colleagues, she was asked to chair an American Bar Association Reading Committee that evaluated Judge Samuel Alito’s qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court. Her committee’s evaluation led to the ABA rating Alito “well qualified."
FACT: Pillard serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Arbitration Association, the world’s largest alternative dispute resolution provider.
FACT: Pillard has a long track record of fair and unbiased work, including litigating major constitutional cases brought or defended by Republican Administrations. And Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents have often written the majority opinions agreeing with her legal arguments.
FACT: President George W. Bush’s Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh signed a letter of support for Professor Pillard citing her unbiased approach to the law.
The Family Research Council has attacked Professor Pillard, claiming she has radical liberal ideas on abortion, motherhood and abstinence only education.
The FRC wrongly attributed a quote to Professor Pillard which was actually a quote belonging to former Chief Justice Rehnquist.
The Family Research Council wrongly accuses Professor Pillard of broadly claiming that abstinence only education is unconstitutional, saying, “Pillard is so fiercely opposed to abstinence education that she has said publicly she would declare it unconstitutional.”
The FRC claimed that Professor Pillard has ‘extreme pro-abortion’ views when in fact Professor Pillard’s academic writing on abortion seeks ways to bridge the gap between abortion rights advocates and opponents by finding common ground for ways to reduce reliance on abortion.
WASHINGTON – People For the American Way today applauded the Senate confirmation of Tom Perez as Secretary of Labor. Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, released the following statement:
“Anyone who cares about the fair treatment of workers or civil rights should be thrilled by the confirmation of Tom Perez. During his time in the Justice Department, Perez’s commitment to protecting the rights of Americans – whether they are women, people of color, LGBT people, or people with disabilities – has been extraordinary. He has spent his career fighting for the rights of all Americans and now he will be able to take that passion and commitment to the Department of Labor.
“Even though today’s vote is an important step forward, we must continue to confront the partisan gridlock in the Senate that is hurting the American people. We must ensure that the President’s judicial nominees, like his executive nominees, also receive up and down votes. The American people understand that when senators decide they’d rather play politics than do their jobs, it harms not only Congress but all of our country.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee today held a hearing for the first of President Obama’s three recent nominees to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, attorney Patricia Ann Millett. Republican committee members, having no actual objections to Millett’s qualifications, used the opportunity to grandstand about what they see as the enormous injustice of a Democratic president nominating people to open seats on the federal judiciary.
Chief among the grandstanders, of course, was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who spent most of his time telling Millett that Republican opposition to her nomination has nothing to do with her and has everything to do with President Obama’s supposed effort to “pack” the DC Circuit.
Very little of what he said had any basis in reality. He started out by claiming that the DC Circuit is currently “evenly divided” between Democratic and Republican nominees and that President Obama and Democrats are now trying to “pack the court” with Obama’s nominees:
Right now, the DC Circuit is evenly divided among active judges, with four Republicans and four Democrats. And you find yourself one of three nominees from the president. The president and senior Democrats on this committee have made clear that they want to pick a fight on the DC Circuit. They want to pick a fight on the DC Circuit, and unfortunately I believe part of this pressure, part of the effort of stopping qualified Republican nominees and then deciding to pick a fight now, is a desire to pack the court.
While it’s true that there are currently four Democratic nominees and four Republican nominees in active service on the court, Cruz obscures the fact that the court has an active backbench of six senior judges – five of whom are Republican nominees:
This imbalance exists because Republican presidents have nominated the bulk of DC Circuit judges in the past three decades -- 15 of the last 19 confirmed to the DC Circuit were nominated by Republicans. Far from “packing” the court, President Obama has had fewer judges confirmed to the DC Circuit than any of his four most recent predecessors.
Cruz continued, insisting that President Obama is trying to “pack” the court because it is “holding this administration accountable, and in particular, holding rule-making accountable that has been contrary to federal law”:
The DC Circuit has been a court that has been holding this administration accountable, and in particular, holding rule-making accountable that has been contrary to federal law. And I believe that there is an activist base that is pressuring the president, that has been pressuring senior Senate Democrats to get judicial nominees on the DC Circuit to protect the regulations coming from this administration. And I think any effort to pack the court because the administration doesn’t like the outcomes of judges applying the law fairly should be decried.
What Cruz is referring to is the fact that the D.C. Circuit is currently dominated by right-wing Republican nominees, who have delved into far-right legal theory to strike down common-sense protections for workers, consumers and voters – you can read about some of their most appalling decisions here. President Obama is not trying to “pack” the court to get the decisions that he wants, as Cruz alleges. Instead, he is using his mandate from American voters to pick judges who will restore some ideological balance to one of the farthest-right courts in the country.
Finally, Cruz declares that his objections to Millett have nothing to do with her “very fine professional qualifications” and instead have to do with too much “partisan politics” in judicial confirmations – partisan politics which he seems to have very little interest in putting aside.
Because I think partisan politics has driven this committee’s approach to the DC Circuit for over a decade. And I think that’s unfortunate, I would rather see a situation where able judges are confirmed irrespective of that. But it is not consistent with our responsibility to let one party prevent qualified judges from going to the court, and at the same time to enable packing the court to reach preferred outcomes. So I thank you for being here, and I think it’s regrettable, the overall context of this dispute, which as I said is irrespective of your very fine professional qualifications.
So, Cruz is refusing to support Millett, who he thinks is unquestionably qualified for the job, for purely political reasons… because he thinks the judicial nominations process has become too politicized.
Today, President Obama nominated three people – experienced appellate attorney Patricia Millet, Georgetown law professor and former civil rights attorney Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and D.C. District Court judge and former public defender Robert Wilkins – to the influential Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
All three have stellar qualifications. Yet, Senate Republicans were threatening to block all three even before they knew who the nominees would be.
In a Rose Garden speech introducing the nominees, President Obama blasted Republican obstruction and urged the Senate to quickly review and hold votes on all three. “The Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats,” he said. “What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.”
So one of the most important responsibilities of a President is to nominate qualified men and women to serve as judges on the federal bench.
And Congress has a responsibility, as well. The Senate is tasked with providing advice and consent. They can approve a President’s nominee or they can reject a President’s nominee. But they have a constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation.
Now, throughout my first term as President, the Senate too often failed to do that. Time and again, congressional Republicans cynically used Senate rules and procedures to delay and even block qualified nominees from coming to a full vote.
As a result, my judicial nominees have waited three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor. Let me repeat that: My nominees have taken three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor. These individuals that I nominate are qualified. When they were given an up or down vote in the Senate -- when they were finally given an up or down vote in the Senate, every one of them was confirmed. So this is not about principled opposition. This is about political obstruction.
Despite that, some Republicans recently have suggested that by nominating these three individuals, I’m somehow engaging in -- and I’m quoting here -- in “court-packing.” (Laughter.) No -- people laugh, but this is an argument I’ve made. For those of you who are familiar with the history of court-packing, that involved Franklin Delano Roosevelt trying to add additional seats to the Supreme Court in order to water down and get more support for his political agenda. We’re not adding seats here. We’re trying to fill seats that are already existing. Each of the past five Presidents has seen at least three of their nominees confirmed to the D.C. Circuit. Since I’ve been President, obstruction has slowed that down to one.
Right now, there are three open seats on a critical court. I didn’t create these seats. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, let’s add three seats to the District Court of Appeals. These are open seats. And the Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats. What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.
For more background on the D.C. Circuit, see PFAW’s Marge Baker’s piece in the Huffington Post yesterday, “Five Things Republicans Don’t Want You to Know About the D.C. Circuit.”
When the Senate unanimously confirmed Sri Srinivasan to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last month, Republicans patted themselves on the back for cooperating in a relatively efficient confirmation process. But, by any objective standard, Srinivasan’s confirmation process wasn’t that efficient at all. In fact, Republican obstruction of Srinivasan started when they delayed a hearing on his nomination for ten months, from June 2012 to April of this year.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now pushing an alternate history of this delay on Srinivasan’s nomination. In a floor speech the day Srinivasan was confirmed, Grassley insisted that Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “made no effort to schedule a hearing on this nominee until late last year.”
In a press release this week, Sen. Leahy explained why this argument is just plain false. In fact, he wrote, it was Senate Republicans who kept insisting that Srinivasan’s hearing be pushed back:
By July 19, 2012, I had determined that the paperwork on the Srinivasan nomination was complete and the nominee could be included in a hearing. It has been my practice as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee to give the minority notice and allow consultation before scheduling a nomination for a hearing. At that time, the next July hearing had been discussed as one devoted to the nominee to head the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice, a nomination that itself had been delayed and to which there was Republican opposition. During the August recess, my staff asked Senator Grassley’s about holding the hearing on the Srinivasan nomination in September. They raised objections and concerns about proceeding with the D.C. Circuit nomination at that time but agreed to proceed with four district nominees and a Court of International Trade nominee.
In November, 2012, after the American people reelected President Obama, we raised the need for a hearing on the D.C. Circuit nomination anew. Republicans objected, again, in spite of the precedent of holding a hearing for one of President Bush’s D.C. Circuit nominees during a similar lame duck session. Instead, they wanted to proceed only with district court nominees during the lame duck. Republicans insisted that the Srinivasan hearing be put off until the new Congress and the new year. In deference to the Republican minority, I held off. They agreed that he would be included at the first nominations hearing of the 113th Congress.
Then, in early January of this year, when called upon to hold up their end of the bargain, Republicans balked.
This isn’t just a matter of settling a complicated Senate score. Instead, Sen. Leahy is pointing out yet another incident of Sen. Grassley’s twisting the truth about judicial nominees and the judicial nominations process in an attempt to cover for slowing down Senate business and ultimately the business of the federal courts. As Leahy says in his statement:
Those erroneous Record statements have me wondering whether I should be so accommodating to Republican scheduling demands given that they forget their demands in their efforts to avoid responsibility and blame others.
People For the American Way today applauded President Obama’s announcement that he would nominate Cornelia (Nina) Pillard, Patricia Ann Millett and Robert Leon Wilkins to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Today’s announcement is an important step toward filling the remaining vacancies on one of our nation’s highest courts,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way. “These nominees all have accomplished records. They should receive prompt hearings and votes in the full Senate without delay.
“These nominations are a clear statement by the President that he won’t be held hostage by the relentless obstruction by Senate Republicans,” continued Baker. “Nearly five years after he was elected, President Obama has had only one nominee confirmed to the DC Circuit, but Republicans are insisting that fulfilling his constitutional obligation to nominate individuals to fill open seats on this Court is somehow ‘court packing.’ That’s ridiculous. Republican Senators should stop playing political games with the courts and end their mindless obstruction of President Obama’s nominees.”
The New York Times reported this week that President Obama is planning to nominate three judges to fill long-vacant seats on the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This is hardly unheard of: every president since Jimmy Carter has placed at least three judges on the D.C. Circuit, and Obama only just had his first nominee confirmed to the court.
But Senate Republicans and conservative activists really, really don’t want President Obama to put any more judges on the D.C. Circuit – perhaps because it is currently dominated by Republican nominees who are intent on rolling back things like clean air regulations, cigarette labeling requirements, and National Labor Relations Board rulings.
So the Senate GOP is threatening to filibuster anybody Obama names to the court and even trying to push through a law permanently deleting the vacant judgeships in order to prevent Obama from filling them.
What has resulted is one of the more bizarre manifestations of Obama Derangement Syndrome. The talking point that Senate Republicans and their allies have landed on to defend this planned obstruction is that President Obama, in nominating judges to existing judicial vacancies as is required by his job, is in fact “packing” the D.C. Circuit in the style of FDR. (Or, in the words of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, like a “king”).
In a column for Breitbart News yesterday the Family Research Council’s Ken Klukowski goes even further, writing that by merely planning to nominate judges to the court – a constitutional requirement of his job fulfilled by every one of his predecessors – Obama has launched an “attack on the independence of the federal courts,” “declared war on judicial independence,” and is “trying to declare law by executive fiat.”
Now that Obama has declared war on judicial independence, Republicans are planning a counter-strategy. There are 13 federal appeals courts. The D.C. Circuit’s caseload is light, while several other circuits are overloaded. Sen. Charles Grassley and Senate Republicans are proposing moving those three seats to courts that could very much use them. Obama would still appoint those three judges, but not to the D.C. Circuit.
It takes legislation to create or move federal judgeships, so this is shaping up as a major part of the battle over courts that are independent of political manipulation.
There are only 80 slots on the Supreme Court’s docket every year. For 20,000 federal appeals each year, whatever the appellate court says is the final word. Obama is hoping that if he can overhaul the judicial balance of the court, his unprecedented claims of federal power might withstand court challenges. From Obamacare to EPA requirements, labor rules, and IRS rules, all these topics and more are going before the D.C. Circuit.
Obama cannot enact major liberal legislation now that he’s lost the House and might also lose the Senate next year. Instead, he’s trying to declare law by executive fiat. Whether he gets away with it likely turns on whether he can change Senate rules and then pack the D.C. Circuit with sympathetic judges.
This attack on the independence of the federal courts should be of concern to all Americans.
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins signed on today as a cosponsor of a blatantly political bill meant to deny President Obama, unlike any of his predecessors, the ability to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The D.C. Circuit is the second most influential court in the country, behind the Supreme Court. It has the final word on scores of federal laws and regulations, from consumer protections to workers’ rights to environmental protections.
For more than 30 years, presidents of both parties have placed numerous judges on the D.C. Circuit:
Senate Republicans prevented President Obama from placing a single nominee on the court during his first term and the first four months of his second, despite the fact that one-third of its active judgeships were vacant. They were so eager to keep the court dominated by Republican-nominated judges that they twice filibustered President Obama’s first nominee to the court, the eminently qualified Caitlin Halligan. Yesterday, after a ten-month delay, the Senate finally confirmed an Obama nominee, Sri Srinivasan, to fill one of the court’s four vacancies. But Republicans are indicating that their cooperation will stop there.
Senate Republicans are not only vowing to block any Obama nominees to the remaining three seats on the D.C. Circuit, they are actually proposing a bill that would eliminate those three seats entirely in order to prevent President Obama from filling them.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley and cosponsored by every other Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, just gained its first non-committee cosponsor: Sen. Collins.
The bill’s backers claim that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a great enough workload to justify filling the remaining three judgeships. However, Sen. Collins’ own voting record provides a perfect refutation of that argument.
Sen. Collins and her allies object to Obama’s filling the 9th, 10th and 11th seats on the D.C. Circuit. However, when George W. Bush was president, Sen. Collins had no such reservations about the need to fill the court's vacancies. In 2006, Collins voted to confirm Bush nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the 10th seat on the D.C. Circuit. In 2005, she voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown to the 10th seat on the court and Thomas Griffith to the 11th.
Following the Griffith confirmation, which Collins supported, the D.C. Circuit’s caseload was 119 cases per active judge. If every one of the D.C. Circuit’s 11 seats were filled today -- including the three seats that Sen. Collins wants to eliminate – the court’s caseload would be slightly higher than it was then, at 120 cases per active judge. Sen. Collins evidently thinks that what was a reasonable caseload for the court under President Bush is somehow wastefully low under President Obama.
Meanwhile, here is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse refuting Sen. Grassley’s absurd claim that President Obama is trying to “pack” the D.C. Circuit by filling its vacancies:
One of President Obama’s most important long-term achievements has been his concerted effort to bring qualified judicial nominees from a wide variety of backgrounds to the federal bench. 42 percent of President Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees have been women, compared with just 22 percent of those nominated by the second President Bush and 29 percent of those nominated President Clinton. Likewise, 46 percent of his confirmed nominees have been people of color, a dramatic change from the previous administration, in which 82 percent of federal judicial nominees were white. And President Obama has nominated more openly gay people to federal judgeships than all of his predecessors combined. (All of these numbers are available in this pdf from our friends at Alliance For Justice).
The four new judicial nominations that the White House announced last night are perfect examples of this effort to make the courts better reflect the people they serve. One, Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, who has been nominated to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, would be the first woman to sit on a federal appeals court in Utah. Pamela L. Reeves, nominated to the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Elizabeth A. Wolford, nominated to the Western District of New York, would be the first women to serve in their respective districts. And Debra M. Brown, nominated to the Northern District of Mississippi, would be the first African-American federal judge in her district and the first African-American woman to serve as an Article III judge in Mississippi.
Another important type of diversity among federal judges – one where there has been some progress but where there is still room for improvement – is diversity of professional background. Judges who have worked as public interest or legal aid attorneys bring a perspective to the bench that is different from that brought by prosecutors and litigators representing corporate clients. One example of this professional diversity is Iowa’s Jane Kelly, who was recently confirmed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals with unanimous bipartisan support from the Senate. An Associated Press profile yesterday explained the important perspective that Kelly will bring to the federal bench from her experience as a federal public defender:
The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.
Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.
"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."
A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.
Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.
Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.
She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.
Other pending nominees with public defender experience include Michael McShane (Oregon), Luis Felipe Restrepo (Pennsylvania), Jeffrey Schmehl (Pennsylvania), Rosemary Márquez (Arizona), and William Thomas (Florida).