Law professor's nomination to D.C. Circuit before Senate panel

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- Members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee were expected to take up Cornelia "Nina" Pillard's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Wednesday.

The committee's hearing on Pillard's nomination was set to start at 10 a.m.

President Barack Obama announced Pillard's nomination to the D.C. Circuit -- considered by some to be the second most important court in the country, after the U.S. Supreme Court -- in June, along with Patricia Ann Millett and Robert Leon Wilkins.

Pillard currently serves as a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Prior to that, she worked in the U.S. Justice Department as a deputy assistant attorney general, the Solicitor General's Office, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Earlier this week, the Women's Bar Association expressed its support for Pillard in a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the judiciary committee, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, its ranking member.

"Ms. Pillard is exceptionally well-qualified for the position to which she has been nominated, and we believe that she would be an outstanding addition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit," President Jessica E. Adler wrote in a three-page letter to the two senators.

"Ms. Pillard's record of achievement, and unanimous rating of Well-Qualified, the highest rating available, from the ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, reflects her significant talents as an appellate litigator and scholar.

"Her legal career is remarkable for her accomplishments and the breadth and depth of her experience, and her reputation for fairmindedness, collegiality, and dedication to principles of equal justice is well founded."

A group of 40 lawyers who practice before the U.S. Supreme Court sent a similar letter to Leahy, D-Vermont, and Grassley, R-Iowa, last week.

"Some of us have served in the Office of Solicitor General, as has Professor Pillard. Some of us have worked on cases with or against Professor Pillard. Some of us know her through her leadership of the Supreme Court Institute and her frequent volunteer service at moot courts and other bar events," they wrote in a July 17 letter.

"We hold a range of political and jurisprudential views, but we speak together in support of Professor Pillard's confirmation. We believe that Professor Pillard has all the attributes to be an exceptional D.C. Circuit judge: she is extremely bright, sensible, respectful of the views of others, and dedicated to fair and impartial administration of the law."

A group of former attorneys in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel -- where Pillard served as a deputy assistant attorney general from 1998 to 2000 -- sent a separate letter to Leahy and Grassley last week, expressing their support for Pillard.

Many of the attorneys, the July 17 letter noted, worked with her in the office.

"We believe that Ms. Pillard has the skill, character and objectivity that would make her a superlative judge on the D.C. Circuit," they wrote. "She was a respected leader and trusted advisor in OLC, valued for her fair-minded and meticulous approach to legal questions of all sorts.

"She is an exemplary nominee whom we wholeheartedly endorse."

Others also have lent their support for Pillard, including Elizabeth C. Dobbins, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia Law School.

Dobbins, in a letter published on The Hill's Congress Blog Tuesday, called Pillard a "brilliant lawyer."

"Nina Pillard helped the nation take a step towards gender equality in 1997 when she succeeded in making a legal argument that VMI -- a public institution -- offered an important and specific opportunity to its cadets and it would be unconstitutional to discriminate against female applicants on the basis of sex," Dobbins wrote.

In a 7-1 majority opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Virginia that "Virginia's categorical exclusion of women from the educational opportunities VMI provides denies equal protection to women."

"Professor Pillard's argument had prevailed, ending discrimination in the admissions process at VMI, and setting our nation's oldest state-supported military college on a path to equality," wrote Dobbins, who says she plans to take the bar exam in the next week, her next step in becoming a lawyer and military officer.

"But I will never forget the steps that were taken before I could take them myself: the steps toward equality of opportunity, equality in education, and equality of conscience. Therefore, I will be at Nina Pillard's Senate hearing, personally supporting her nomination for a seat on the D.C. Circuit court."

The judiciary committee held a hearing on Millett's nomination earlier this month.

According to reports, there was no criticism of Millett herself -- even Republicans noted she had strong credentials -- only of the D.C. Circuit and Obama's plan to "pack" the court.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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