Late Wednesday and early Thursday, the Senate voted to confirm two key nominations, Georgetown law professor Nina Pillard to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and Chai Feldblum to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The votes were the latest to come from the Senate after Senate Democrats reformed the rules to prevent the filibuster of non-Supreme Court-level judicial nominees and other executive agency nominations. Their confirmations represent an important step forward, not just in filling critical vacancies in the courts and agencies, but in changing the culture of both.
The Senate first took up the Pillard vote, narrowly confirming her 51 to 44 after Senate Republicans forced Democrats to use all 30 hours of debate on her nomination. Senate Republicans have been united in their opposition to the Pillard nomination, calling her an “extremist,” despite her excellent credentials and wealth of experience. As a professor at Georgetown Law School, Pillard argued that access to contraception and abortion is an important part of ensuring gender equality, while as an advocate she argued, and won, the critically important cases of United States v. Virginia, which opened the Virginia Military Institute to women, and Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, which successfully defended the Family and Medical Leave Act against claims it was unconstitutional.
On the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, she will join Patricia Millett, a seasoned, centrist litigator, and provide an important ideological balance on the bench to Janice Rogers Brown, who recently called the Affordable Care Act (ACA) a “behemoth” that “tramples” on the religious rights of corporations in an opinion striking the contraception benefit in the ACA as unconstitutional.
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Like Pillard, Feldblum is also a culture changer. Also a Georgetown Law Professor, Feldblum is an openly lesbian advocate who has been at the forefront of LGBTQ and disability equality for decades. She played a leading role in the drafting of the Americans With Disabilities Act and is a leading expert on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Notably, her scholarly work explores the issues of gay rights, religion and equality—all critical issues facing the agency charged with monitoring and enforcing workplace civil rights, especially as conservatives advance arguments that various forms of workplace discrimination should be tolerated under their First Amendment religious exercise rights. Her nomination and confirmation is an important victory for employment equality advocates.
Our federal agencies and courts are charged with enforcing and protecting our federal civil rights, which is why it is so critically important those at the top reflect the deep diversity present in this country. But these institutions are also slow to change and are often playing catch-up with public opinion. The fight for marriage equality and contraceptive equality are two clear examples of this inertia. This week though, with the confirmation of both Pillard and Feldblum, things started moving again and we took an important step forward in advancing the cause of equality. Let’s just remember that movement was possible only after fundamentally changing the way the Senate does business.