Flashback: When Republicans Thought It Was Okay For Judicial Nominees to Have Opinions

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee spent yesterday’s confirmation hearing on D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Nina Pillard harping on two points: first, that they think the D.C. Circuit doesn’t need its three vacancies filled, and second, that they think Pillard’s arguments as an academic mean she would disregard the law as a judge.

As it happens, when George W. Bush was the one nominating federal judges, the very same senators held the exact opposite view on both of these issues.

As People For the American Way has extensively shown, the argument that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t need judges holds no water – in fact, Bush nominees Thomas Griffith and John Roberts (now Chief Justice) were confirmed to the D.C. Circuit when each active judge’s caseload was significantly lower than it is today. 

And Republican attacks on Pillard’s academic writings also directly contradict their previous statements on Bush nominees with academic records. As Pillard noted in her hearing, "Academics are paid to test the boundaries and look at the implications of things. As a judge, I would apply established law of the U.S. Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit."

Just a few years ago, Republican senators agreed. On the nomination of Tenth Circuit judge Michael McConnell, who took a number of far-right stands as an academic, including disagreeing with a Supreme Court decision declaring that a university ban on interracial dating constituted racial discrimination, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said, “The diversity of backgrounds and points of view are often the stitches holding together the fabric of our freedoms.”

“Surely, we can’t vote for or against a nominee on whether they agree with us on any number of a host of moral and religious issues, ” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions said of Eleventh Circuit nominee William Pryor, a far-right culture warrior who was outspoken in opposition to gay rights, women’s rights and the separation of church and state.

Then-Sen. Jim Demint defended D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, one of the most outspoken conservative ideologues on the federal bench today, by saying, “A person with strong beliefs and personal convictions should not be barred from being a judge. In fact, I would rather have an honest liberal serve as a judge than one who has been neutered by fear of public opinion.”

And before the Senate confirmed Arkansas District Court Judge J. Leon Holmes, who used Todd Akin’s line about pregnancy from rape before Todd Akin did, Hatch told concerned colleagues,  “This man is a very religious man who has made it more than clear that he will abide by the law even when he differs with it.”

These Bush nominees held positions that were clearly far out of the mainstream, yet Senate Republicans demanded and got yes-or-no confirmation votes on them, helping Bush to shift the federal judiciary far to the right.

What some Judiciary Committee Republicans objected to at yesterday’s hearings is what they apparently see as Pillard’s excessive support for women’s equality, both as an attorney and an academic. Pillard won the Supreme Court case opening the Virginia Military Institute to women and worked with Bush administration officials to successfully defend the Family and Medical Leave Act.  She has strongly defended reproductive rights and criticized abstinence-only education that sends different messages to boys and girls. It’s this record that  her Republican opponents have distorted beyond recognition.

By any measure, Pillard is well within the mainstream, and has made it very clear that she understands that the role of a judge is to apply existing law regardless of one’s personal views. But while Senate Republicans made plenty of excuses for Bush nominees who were far outside the mainstream, they are accusing Pillard of being just too much of a women's rights supporter to fairly apply the law.

PFAW