This Kavanaugh Defender and Abortion Foe Could End Up on the Federal Bench (Updated)

Sarah Pitlyk's legal career includes defending extreme six-week abortion bans and attacking in vitro fertilization.

[Photo: Sarah Pitlyk speaks during an interview.]
Trump has nominated Pitlyk to be a federal district judge in Missouri, a state where conservative lawmakers have focused on passing one extreme anti-abortion ban after another. CNN / YouTube

UPDATE, Monday, December 9, 10:30 a.m.: In a mostly party-line vote on December 4, the U.S. Senate confirmed Sarah Pitlyk as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Sarah Pitlyk has devoted her legal career to rolling back access to reproductive health care and vouching for the conservative credentials of men like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And Republicans are about to reward her with a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.

President Donald Trump has nominated Pitlyk to be a federal district judge in Missouri, a state where conservative lawmakers have focused on passing one extreme anti-abortion ban after another. Should she be confirmed, she will no doubt give any anti-choice law challenged in her courtroom the go-ahead to take effect.

Pitlyk is in many ways a quintessential Trump judicial nominee. She’s young, white, and a member of the Federalist Society. The fact that she’s a woman makes her stand out among the pool of more than 150 federal judges Republicans have confirmed during the Trump presidency. A graduate of Yale Law School, she clerked for Kavanaugh from 2010 to 2011, when he was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Pitlyk came to Kavanaugh’s defense early in his nomination process, assuring fellow conservatives in the National Review that Kavanaugh would be a reliable vote against abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Pitlyk praised Kavanaugh’s dissenting opinion in Garza v. Hargan, the case involving the Trump administration’s efforts to deny undocumented minors in its custody access to abortion care. Pitlyk noted in the National Review piece that Kavanaugh’s dissent endorsed the Trump administration’s position that it did not have to facilitate “abortion on demand,” anti-choice rhetoric used to describe routine access to abortion care services.

As an attorney in private practice and as special counsel at the Thomas More Society, a conservative litigation mill, Pitlyk has defended some of the most extreme abortion restrictions in the country. For instance, Pitlyk defended Iowa’s six-week abortion ban, one of the first extreme pre-viability bans that are now all the rage in states run by Republicans. She lost that case: In January, a state court judge rightly declared the Iowa law unconstitutional.

Pitlyk also was involved in an amicus brief in Box v. Planned Parenthood Indiana and Kentucky. The case involved a challenge to two Indiana abortion restrictions: one that mandates disposal methods for fetal remains and another that bans abortion based on the race, sex, or possible disability of the fetus. The Roberts Court last summer ruled the fetal remains requirements were constitutional but that Indiana’s “reason ban” was not. Pitlyk argued in her brief that abortion and contraception are rooted in eugenics. “Given its strategic location of abortion clinics near minority neighborhoods and its blatant marketing of abortion to the minority community, the abortion industry’s claims to bear no responsibility for the staggering numbers of minority abortions beggars belief,” she writes. Justice Clarence Thomas picked up her disproven theme and ran with it when the Court ruled on the case.

Pitlyk’s anti-choice credentials don’t end with defending extreme abortion bans and advancing myths of abortion as Black genocide. She has a history of attacking in vitro fertilization and assisted reproductive technologies. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Pitlyk and other attorneys for Hobby Lobby equated hormonal birth control with abortion, arguing that providing employees birth control coverage at no additional cost or co-pay as mandated in the ACA requires employers to “cooperate in the destruction of human life.” She has also defended Planned Parenthood smear-campaign architect David Daleiden in a number of cases. Pitlyk describes this work as “defending undercover journalists against civil lawsuits and criminal charges resulting from an investigation of illegal fetal tissue trafficking.” Daleiden falsely accused Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. These claims helped fuel an upswing in threats and violence against abortion providers, including in 2015, when Robert Lewis Dear Jr. killed three people while laying siege to a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.

In September 2019 the nonpartisan American Bar Association (ABA) unanimously found Pitlyk “Not Qualified” to serve as a federal judge. She is the eighth Trump judicial nominee to be found “Not Qualified” by the ABA and one of four to be unanimously declared “Not Qualified.” The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider her nomination on Thursday.