Cornelia “Nina” Pillard, nominee to the powerful DC Circuit Court of Appeals, ran into tough questioning on abortion rights, religion and even the Klu Klux Klan Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Republicans.
The GOP has accused the President of trying to “pack” the federal appeals court because he has the good fortune to have three vacancies to fill on the 11-member court. Pillard may have the toughest time of the three nominees pending for the court because of her past work in private practice.
She worked as co-director of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute, which is a training school for lawyers about to argue before the high court. And the Institute doesn’t do any political screening of the lawyers or cases they will argue.
Pillard, 52, also served as co-chair of the American Bar Association committee that vetted the work of conservative Supreme Court Justice nominee Samuel Alito and ultimately gave him the ABA’s highest rating.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley asked if she thought certain rights can be found in the Constitution if you “read between the lines,” alluding to the right of privacy found to justify abortion rights.
“I don’t think that is a methodology I would follow in my role as a judge. I would apply the precedent of the Supreme Court,” she said.
She was also grilled about comments in academic writings that reproductive rights might be doubly protected by equal protection and liberty rights in the Constitution.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz accused her of being “dismissive of religious rights” for criticism of a law that allowed pharmacists and other health care workers to refuse to provide abortion services.
To that and other criticisms by conservatives, Pillard said, “Academics are paid to test boundaries.” As a judge, she said, she would be bound by the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.
Cruz also questioned her about a 2007 article that he characterized as Pillard saying a school’s decision to teach abstinence-only sex education might be unconstitutional. She said in response that she sees no constitutional objection to such programs unless they rely upon and promulgate sex stereotypes.
And Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, questioned her about another academic paper calling pro-life protesters “militant” and he suggested she compared them to the Klu Klux Klan. “Is that a fair comparison,” he asked.
“Not at all senator, not at all,” she said. She added, the article argued that a law used to curb excesses of the KKK could be deployed to stop abortion clinic protesters who interfered with law enforcement. In any case, she pointed out the next year Congress Enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act, to protect women from violent excesses by clinic protesters.
The DC Circuit nominees have drawn close scrutiny because the court handles the majority of appeals in cases involving government agencies and it is considered a potential stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are currently four judges appointed by a Democrat president and four by a Republican president on the court, with three vacancies, potentially tipping the balance to the liberal side of the court.