Senate Confirms Nina Pillard, Dedicated Women's Rights Attorney, To Second-Highest Court In Country

Her name is Nina Pillard, and you should keep an eye on her. A former ACLU attorney and leading women’s rights advocate, Pillard has just been confirmed to sit on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second-highest court in the country. That itself is a huge deal, but Pillard isn't just a strong advocate for women; she also just became a leading candidate to fill the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.

Despite vehement Republican opposition to Pillard’s nomination, Pillard’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was confirmed by a 51-44 vote early Thursday morning. With Pillard’s confirmation, D.C. Circuit Court now has six Democratic-appointed judges, compared with four appointed by Republicans.

Pillard isn’t merely pro-choice — although that itself is big deal for a judicial nominees. She also happens to be one of the top women’s rights attorneys in the country, having successfully argued two of the most important gender equality cases in decades in front of the Supreme Court. In United States v. Virginia, she convinced the high court to strike down the Virginia Military Institute’s men-only admissions policy, and in doing so, helped set the legal precedent that the government can only make gender-based classifications with “exceedingly persuasive justifications.”

In 2003, Pillard joined with Bush administration officials to argue Nevada Department of Human Resources vs. Hibbs, the outcome of which guaranteed the rights of women employed by the states — as well as their partners — to take maternity leave without being fired.

Some have compared Pillard to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as they have similar backgrounds, judicial records, and judicial ideologies. In addition, the D.C. Circuit court is a traditional stepping stone to the Supreme Court, so there's a strong possibility that Pillard could follow in Ginsburg's footsteps and end up on the highest court in the country. As Ian Millhiser wrote:

The parallels between Ginsburg’s and Pillard’s careers are striking. Both women worked for the ACLU. Both became leading scholars of civil procedure at top law schools. And both litigated several of the most significant women’s rights cases to reach the Supreme Court during their careers as practicing attorneys. Ginsburg, for her part, authored the brief in Reed v. Reed that led a unanimous Supreme Court to hold for the first time that the Constitution ensures equal rights under law for women. Her subsequent brief in Craig v. Boren convinced the Court that government gender discrimination will be subject to heightened constitutional scrutiny.

Pillard’s confirmation wouldn’t have been possible if Democrats hadn’t eliminated the filibuster for judicial nominations in November. Without that rule change, Pillard would have needed 60 votes to pass confirmation, which she didn’t have. Under the new rules, though, she only needed 51, and that’s what she got.

Incidentally, the reason the filibuster is gone has a lot to do Pillard’s original nomination. President Obama tapped her to serve on the court in June, but when it came time for confirmation, Republicans blocked her. In doing so, however, they broke an “informal” agreement they’d made with Democrats, wherein they’d promised not to filibuster qualified judicial nominees. When Republicans reneged on this agreement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was so angry that he finally decided to go ahead and kill the filibuster, something he’d been threatening to do for years.

The D.C. circuit court has long had four judges appointed by Republicans, four appointed by Democrats, and three vacancies. This is largely why Republicans have blocked Obama’s appointees to the court, as even one additional liberal judge on the bench would give progressives a majority of votes.

"All of us know what this is about. This is about control of this body," Republican Senator Mike Johanns grumbled after Obama announced Pillard's nomination. This was an odd complaint, as Johanns seemed to be denying the right of any president to appoint any judges, to any court, ever.

Now that the filibuster is gone, however, the GOP’s worst nightmare is more or less coming true: Two days earlier, the Senate confirmed Patricia Millet, another strong women’s rights advocate, to the D.C. Circuit, and it’s soon expected to confirm Robert L. Wilkins, a U.S. District judge who won a landmark racial profiling case against the state of Maryland in the early 90s.

In other words, the second-most powerful court in the country is about to have a 7-4 liberal majority, two of whom are vocal pro-choice feminists, and there’s nothing Republicans can do about it.