The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 8 along party lines Thursday to approve the nomination of Georgetown law professor Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pillard’s nomination now moves to the Senate, where Republicans have threatened a filibuster.
The Pillard nomination has become a flashpoint for Republicans who have tried to paint her as a judicial extremist. Pillard, who testified before the committee in July and has received a unanimous rating of “well qualified” from the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, first joined the Georgetown Law faculty in 1997 after more than a decade as a trial attorney. Her most impressive wins before the Supreme Court include United States v. Virginia, which opened the Virginia Military Institute to women, and Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, which successfully defended the Family and Medical Leave Act against a constitutional challenge.
Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron issued a statement in response to the committee vote, praising Pillard and criticizing Republicans for politicizing her nomination. “We commend the majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee for supporting President Obama’s nomination of Nina Pillard for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,” she said. “We are disappointed, but not surprised, that all of the committee’s Republicans chose to put politics ahead of qualifications and opposed this outstanding nominee.”
People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker also voiced support for Pillard and urged swift Senate consideration of her nomination. “Professor Pillard is an exceptionally qualified nominee,” said Baker in a statement. “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. … Her national reputation as a supremely talented and consistently fair attorney is well-earned. 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.”
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The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on the nomination of Robert Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2010 who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. No timeline has been set for a vote on his nomination.
It was during Wilkins’ testimony that Republican Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley (R-IA) made it clear the GOP was not done fighting over the court, suggesting that even though Wilkins was a well-liked and well-respected sitting judge, his nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals might fail because of “other factors.”
Grassley raised those threats again prior to the Pillard vote. “[A]s I review her legal career, I’m concerned by the instances where she has really stretched the limits of thoughtful reasoning,” Grassley said. “In my view, at times she appears to advance her own extreme policy preferences.”
Other Republicans on the committee, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), echoed Grassley. Hatch said that while he believes Pillard to be a qualified attorney, her record “demonstrates the kind of political activist judicial philosophy that I believe actually fails this test.” He added, “Her writings in various areas including reproductive rights and the family do not simply take a liberal position, but adopt a rigid ideology that clearly drives not only her view of the law but even her understanding of social facts.”
Democrats on the committee, like Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein of California, defended Pillard and accused Republicans of having a double standard when it comes to approving judicial candidates. “I guess Republicans tend to believe the Democratic nominees who have a position on controversial issues cannot be fair judges,” said Feinstein. “And yet, when the reverse happens, they all believe activist Republicans can be a fair judge.”
During statements prior to the vote on Pillard’s nomination, Grassley once again pushed against filling any of the three open seats on the court, arguing the current workload of the court doesn’t justify it. But, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the caseload per active judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has risen more than 50 percent since 2005. Furthermore, the D.C. Circuit Court hears some of the most complicated cases in the entire federal courts system, a point that fellow conservatives like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts point to in urging Republicans to abandon their plan to cut the number of seats on the court.
Leading up to Thursdays vote, though, it did not appear like Republicans planned to heed Chief Justice Roberts’ advice. “Unfortunately, the justification for moving forward with additional D.C. Circuit nominees appears to be a desire and intent to pack the court in order to determine the outcome of cases this court hears,” Grassley said. “It is no secret that this is the President’s intent.”
The full Senate now must consider Pillard’s nomination, along with the nomination of Patricia Millett. A litigator who leads the Supreme Court practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Field LLP, Millett made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee also on a 10-8 party-line vote last month.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has not said when the Senate will take up the nominations.