Democrats Grill Pick for Missouri Court on Anti-Abortion Work

WASHINGTON (CN) – As nominees to the Ninth and Second Circuits sailed through their nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Democrats on the panel zeroed in on a nominee for a Missouri federal court over her work on anti-abortion litigation.

The U.S. Capitol at sunrise. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sarah Pitlyk, who is nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, has for the last two years worked as special counsel at the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm that bills itself as “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty.”

Since joining the Thomas More Society, she has worked to defend an Iowa law that banned abortions in the state after a fetal heartbeat is detected and represented a collection of religious organizations in their successful challenge to a St. Louis ordinance that barred discrimination on the basis of “reproductive health decisions.”

Among her most high profile work has been her role as part of a legal team defending David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress in civil and criminal cases over undercover videos Daleiden released purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue.

Before joining the Thomas More Society, Pitlyk assisted in filing a brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down the federal health care law’s contraceptive mandate.

Pitlyk acknowledged during her hearing that her work on anti-abortion issues has been a major part of her legal practice, especially in recent years, but assured senators she would be able to put those views to the side on the federal bench.

“I think I stand in a long line of other people who have sat at this table who have had histories in advocacy or in issue-related advocacy or in politics and who have become very distinguished jurists,” Pitlyk said Wednesday.

But Democrats were not so quick to look past Pitlyk’s courtroom work, saying it calls into question her promise to stand by Supreme Court precedents that might conflict with her personal views.

“How can you ensure that a litigant in your courtroom seeking to vindicate her right to an abortion could trust your impartiality given your zealous and passionate advocacy?” Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Wednesday.

Democrats also took aim at Pitlyk for the not-qualified rating she received from the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.

In a letter to senators Tuesday, standing committee chair William Hubbard said Pitlyk received a not-qualified rating because of her lack of trial experience, which Hubbard called a “very substantial gap” in her resume.

Pitlyk told the committee Wednesday that while she has participated generally in many stages of both civil and criminal litigation, she has not taken a deposition, questioned a witness in a courtroom or served as lead counsel in either a criminal or civil trial.

Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said this lack of experience would be a major impediment to her as a trial court judge.

“You’re asking for a lifetime appointment as a trial court judge,” Durbin said. “There are many things that I think you could be excellent at. Your background says that. This is not one of them.”

In defending her experience, Pitlyk touted her extensive appellate work and her time clerking for then-D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh. She said part of the reason she has somewhat limited experience in trial and deposition work is the legal teams she has worked on have allowed her to arrange her schedule to make sure she can spend more time with her children.

“I have been very fortunate to work in the last two environments I’ve worked in, at small firms with very accommodating and flexible colleagues who want the best for me and for my family in addition to the best for our clients, and so I have had the luxury of getting to be as protected as possible and as supported as possible by my colleagues,” Pitlyk said.

Republican senators also defended her from the ABA rating by criticizing the organization as biased against Republicans, an argument that has coursed through the Judiciary Committee during the Trump administration.

Pitlyk’s time before the committee was significantly more contentious than that of either Ninth Circuit nominee Danielle Hunsaker or Second Circuit nominee William Nardini. Both nominees described their judicial philosophy to the committee as originalist and faced questions from only one Democrat, Blumenthal.

Hunsaker has since 2017 served on the Washington County Circuit Court in Oregon, having spent time before that in private practice at the Portland firms Larkins Vacura Kayser and Stoel Rives. Nardini has served for nearly two decades as a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, taking time from 2010 to 2014 to serve as a Department of Justice attaché at the U.S. embassy in Rome.

Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., met with Hunsaker on Tuesday, according to a spokesperson for the senator. While Wyden signed off after that meeting on the Judiciary Committee going forward with Hunsaker’s nomination, he has still not made a decision on whether to support her if she comes up for a confirmation vote.

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma nominee Jodi Dishman and U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota nominee Daniel Traynor also testified before the committee Wednesday, but received few questions from senators.

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