As expected, the Senate blocked an up-or-down confirmation vote Tuesday on one of the nation’s leading women’s rights attorneys, Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard.
Pillard is one of three nominees to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that Republicans committed to block. Democrats have warned that if Republicans go forward with their threat and block all three nominees, they will invoke what is known as the nuclear option, and change the Senate rules with a simple majority vote. Under existing rules, 60 votes are needed to invoke cloture and overcome a filibuster. The Senate vote Tuesday evening was 56–41, meaning that Pillard’s nomination had the support of a majority of senators but was nonetheless blocked.
Two weeks ago, Senate Republicans signaled their commitment to filibustering these nominees when they similarly blocked a vote on Patricia Millett, a nominee that has garnered little particularized opposition from Republicans. Instead, Senate Republicans have cited misleading statistics to claim that judges are no longer needed to fill the three vacant seats, belying the reality that filibustering Obama’s nominees would maintain the conservative stronghold over the court that has blocked environmental regulations and issued a radical ruling that could undercut all federal labor regulation.
Filibustering Pillard, who was rated unanimously well qualified by the American Bar Association, sends an even broader message. Unlike the generalized opposition to Millett and Obama’s third nominee to the D.C. Circuit, Judge Robert Wilkins, Republicans have aimed more personal attacks at Pillard. One prominent conservative group warned of Pillard’s “militant feminism,” saying, “America can’t afford to give a lifetime appointment to a radical ideologue!” And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) attacked a law review article in which Pillard opposed gender stereotyping in public school curricula.
As Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pointed out just before the vote, Pillard is also the third highly qualified woman whose nomination to the D.C. Circuit has been blocked by Senate Republicans. (The other two were Millett and Caitlin Halligan).
Today’s vote against Pillard may confirm what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted when she said her record as a women’s rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union “would probably disqualify” her from confirmation if she were nominated to the bench today.
The filibuster of Pillard not only brings Senate Democrats a step closer to invoking the “nuclear option.” It also suggests a grim future for judicial nominees who are open about their commitment to women’s and reproductive rights, and raises questions about who will carry on the legacy of Justice Ginsburg. Among those Republicans who voted against Pillard were a host of Republican senators who pledged during George W. Bush’s presidency never to filibuster a judicial nominee, and some who even said it was unconstitutional.