Terribly Stuck In the Past: NRO Can't Stand A Modern Female Judicial Nominee

Obsessed with an uncontroversial 2007 academic article she wrote on reproductive rights, National Review Online continues to smear judicial nominee Cornelia Pillard, whose approval vote before the Senate Judiciary Committee is today.

Nominated to the second-most important court in the nation, Pillard should be voted out of committee on her way to a Senate confirmation vote based on her stellar qualifications for the U.S. Court of Appeals. Because of right-wing media attacks started by National Review Online and repeated almost verbatim by GOP Senators on the committee, the vote is expected to be straight down party lines.

In anticipation of the vote, last night the editorial board of the NRO regurgitated the same smears.

Pivoting off of a sliver of her academic work while misrepresenting it, right-wing media have attacked Pillard for her mainstream support of family planning, comprehensive sex education, and overall adherence to established sex equality law.

Right-wing media have been so desperate to pretend her legal writings are “extreme” that not only have they dismissed the inconvenient fact that half of the Supreme Court agreed with her perspectives on reproductive rights and abortion, but her invocation of the relevance of “sex stereotypes” that NRO and others like Tony Perkins condemn was endorsed by arch-conservative former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.   

But the attacks are not really about Pillard.

Rather, they are a reflection of how much the right-wing apparently loathes the decades-long development of sex equality under Fourteenth Amendment law. Make no mistake- most of these Pillard smears have nothing to do with fidelity to precedent. Right-wing media like NRO apparently desire nominees who don't support civil rights precedent.

Indeed, these smears predate established case law so badly that they're not just out of date, they're downright "terrible arguments." As remarked on by legal expert Dahlia Lithwick for Slate:

Cornelia “Nina” Pillard is President Obama's pick for one of three vacant seats on the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia Circuit. She is a well-respected professor at Georgetown Law School; co-director of its Supreme Court Institute; a former lawyer at the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Justice Department; and a successful Supreme Court litigator.

She is also a “feminist.”

A “feminist” insofar as she has spent part of her career advocating for women's equality (including a successful brief challenging the men-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute, and a successful challenge to gender-biased family leave policies). Pillard's “radical feminism” appears largely to take the form of seeking equality for women, which would certainly be a disqualifying feature of her advocacy work. If it were 1854.

This veteran litigator, law professor, and sex equality expert was so crucial to the historic Fourteenth Amendment case that opened the doors of VMI that among the other conservative legal luminaries who have endorsed her, so has the former head of VMI, Josiah Bunting III. From the superintendent's op-ed in Politico:

VMI did not willingly open its doors to women in 1997, and many cadets and officers -- myself included -- initially opposed the decision. We believed that VMI's all-maleness was the essential element in our singular way of preparing cadets for their careers.


Over the 15 years since, the women who have excelled at VMI in increasing numbers have proved me wrong. I soon came to believe that the response of our institution and our integration of women was VMI's finest hour.

Many people deserve credit for today's successful coeducation at VMI, not the least of whom are the brave women who first sought to walk through its gates. But it was a dedicated attorney named Nina Pillard who wrote the briefs that convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the school's male-only admissions policy in United States v. Virginia.


Pillard's work in United States v. Virginia demonstrated her judgment and dedication to upholding the Constitution. Her work has strengthened the fundamental principles of American democracy that VMI was designed to protect. She deserves to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The National Review has a dreadfully archaic take on racial issues, past and present. The editorial board's current treatment of Pillard shows NRO is doing its best to drive off a modern female audience as well.

UPDATE: Pillard's nomination was approved and will now go before the full Senate for an up-or-down vote, unless GOP Senators successfully filibuster. No Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for Pillard. From People For The American Way:

Professor Pillard would become just the sixth women confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court in its 120-year history.

In looking for excuses to avoid confirming Professor Pillard to this vacancy, some on the Right have attacked her academic work promoting the entirely mainstream notion that men and women should be treated equally under the law. The fact that in 2013 a nominee is being attacked for believing in women's equality is just absurd.

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.