Filibusters and Smears: Advocating for Gender Equality Is "Controversial" in Obstructionist Senate

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November 13, 2013

President Obama has nominated three women to the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is often referred to as the second-most important court in the country. All three have been filibustered by Republicans in the Senate.

Yesterday, the Senate failed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster of the nomination of Cornelia "Nina" Pillard – a professor at Georgetown Law School with a rich civil rights background as a lawyer at the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Pillard has argued and briefed dozens of cases that have come to the U.S. Supreme Court and is recognized as one of the nation's most prominent women's rights attorneys. In fact, her work with the ACLU and litigating and winning women’s equality cases before the Supreme Court has drawn comparisons to the career of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – who, as it happens, served on the D.C. Circuit before her tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1996, Pillard crafted the argument that convinced the Supreme Court, in the landmark case United States v. Virginia, that excluding qualified women from admission to the Virginia Military Institute violated the U.S Constitution. And in 2003, she worked alongside Bush administration attorneys to argue and win a Supreme Court case that challenged gender-biased policies under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Pillard's record of accomplishments on behalf of equality should be celebrated, not smeared.

Yet, since her nomination, Pillard has been pilloried by anti-equality groups characterizing her as a "militant feminist” who is “outside the mainstream" and would be “the most left-wing judge in the history of the Republic.” The anti-gay Family Research Council said that: “Because Pillard manipulates the Constitution to justify her radical and, frankly, absurd beliefs, her ideas are not merely liberal fare, they are dangerous.”

This must stop. Gender equality under the law is not a radical concept. The notion that we should not tolerate laws or policies that are predicated on unconstitutional sex-role stereotyping is not extreme. In addition, the stunning lack of women on the federal bench is unacceptable. According to the National Women's Law Center, only 32% of the active judges currently sitting on our nation's 13 federal courts of appeal are female. There have only been five women ever to serve on the D.C. Circuit in the court's 120-year history.

The D.C. Circuit hears some of the country’s most important and complex cases involving laws passed by Congress and rules promulgated by government agencies. Just this month, the D.C. Circuit ruled that the owners of a multi-billion dollar corporation could challenge the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act because of religious objections. Lambda Legal filed an amicus brief in this case arguing that such a decision would “open a door for other for-profit, secular businesses to claim religious immunity from the full spectrum of generally applicable laws protecting people.”

There are currently three empty seats on the 11-member D.C Circuit. Yet, Senate Republicans are currently blocking any and all nominees arguing that filling existing vacancies on this one appellate court, which a president is constitutionally required to do, amounts to “court packing.”

Our country relies on our courts and deserves better than this obstruction of democracy. We also deserve a diverse judiciary that resembles the nation it serves. And Nina Pillard deserves better.  She deserves an up-or-down vote.