Born in March 1961 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cornelia Pillard earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale College in 1983 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1987. After completing her studies, Pillard began her legal career as a clerk for Federal Judge Louis Pollak in 1987-88. In 1988-89 she held the Marvin M. Karpatkin fellowship at the ACLU. From 1989-94 she litigated individual and class-action racial discrimination cases at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. From 1994-97 she served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General under Janet Reno in the Bill Clinton administration. And from 1998-2000 she worked in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. A member of the Georgetown University Law Center faculty since 1997, Pillard has argued 9 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and briefed more than 25 others in that same venue.
A strong supporter of women's right to taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand, Pillard in 2007 wrote a law-review article asserting that that “[r]eproductive rights, including the rights to contraception and abortion, play a central role in freeing women from historically routine conscription into maternity”; that any infringement of these rights “reinforces broader patterns of discrimination against women as a class of presumptive breeders rather than reliable breadwinners and citizens”; and that ultrasounds are “deceptive images of fetus-as-autonomous-being that the anti-choice movement has popularized since the advent of amniocentesis.”
On the matter of trying to minimize unwanted pregnancies, Pillard rejects “the abstinence-only approach” to sex education in the public schools, asserting that it “is permeated with stereotyped messages and sex-based double standards about acceptable male and female sexual behavior and appropriate social roles.” Consequently, says Pillard, this approach “violates the constitutional bar against sex stereotyping and is vulnerable to equal-protection challenge.”
As an alternative to an abstinence-only orientation, Pillard wants federal judges to require public shools to institute “egalitarian sex education” that “recognize[s] the realities of sex-based subordination and harm even while it strongly counters sex-based stereotypes and double standards”; “acknowledge[s] and oppose[s] male-on-female aggression and the larger system of gender hierarchy that such aggression exemplifies and sustains.”; “recognize[s] that boys and men, too, are frequently harmed by sexual aggression”; and “affirm[s] the value of sexual pleasure for females as well as males.” In short, Pillard favors federal judicial micromanagement of sex-education curricula.
Pillard allows that an “abstinence message” (emphasis added) can be part of “egalitarian sex education” if it “eschew[s] sex-based double standards,” but she claims to be agnostic about whether such a “message” should in fact be included in the curriculum. She is particularly vexed by the role of “religious and conservative groups such as Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America” in supporting abstinence-only curricula. Such “sex-education conservatives,” says Pillard, believe that: “females' chastity is more important than males'”; “marriage is the only proper venue for sexual intimacy”; “men's sex drive and sexual satisfaction is privileged” while women’s should be “demonized or ignored”; and it is acceptable to embrace a “sexual double standard that weighs females', but not males', chastity as more important than their sexual fulfillment.” By Pillard's reckoning, there are no “'natural' sex differences” between men and women beyond “a kernel of anatomical sex difference.” Other apparent differences, she maintains, are merely the result of the “vast web of sex-based hierarchy [that] has been spun off [this] kernel.”
In 2011-12, Pillard was outspoken about Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, a case where the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar ministers from suing their churches under anti-employment-discrimination laws, because churches and other religious groups must be free to choose their leaders without government interference. Prior to that decision, Pillard wrote that the position of the defendant church represented “a substantial threat to the American rule of law.” Even Justice Elena Kagan, an appointee of President Barack Obama, described the plaintiff's position in the case, which Pillard supported, as “amazing.”
Pillard once argued in favor of the notion that an anti-Ku Klux Klan statute that had barred Klansmen from demonstrating in public during the post-Civil War era, could be used as a precedent for preventing modern-day anti-abortion protesters from holding rallies of their own. Years later, Pillard explained that she had not meant to equate the KKK with pro-life activists—but rather, that she had been forced to rely on the anti-Klan law because, at the time of her original assertion, there were no other laws under which one could target militant anti-abortionists.
Pillard is the founding Academic Co-Director and Professor at the London-based Center for Transnational Legal Studies (CTLS), whose mission, by Pillard's telling, is “based on recognition that now we need to make some shifts from nation- or region-centric to a more broadly transnational, even global, orientation”—i.e., to view international law, and not just the U.S. Constitution, as a legitimate basis for the formulation of public policy in America. Pillard's CTLS co-founder (and occasional co-author), Muthucumaraswamy Sornarajah, lauds the transnational movement for serving as a check to “the age of greed” brought about by American “hegemony.” And Pillard concurs with Sornarajah's belief that transnational legal studies should not seek to promote U.S. interests, but rather should emphasize the need for “fairer and more environmentally sustainable economic development.”
On June 4, 2013, President Obama nominated Pillard as well as Patricia Millett and Robert Wilkins to fill three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia—the nation's second-highest court, and one that is often called upon to resolve critically important cases involving the separation of powers, the role of government, the rights of federal officials, and the decisions of administrative agencies. When their confirmations were subsequently filibustered by Senate Republicans, Majority Leader Harry Reid called for the Senate to lower the number of votes required to break a filibuster (in cases involving judicial and executive nominees), from the traditional 60 to a simple majority. On November 21, Reid's historic proposal was pushed through the Senate without any Republican support. (For further details on Reid's procedural move and its implications, click here.)
A legal academic who is familiar with Cornelia Pillard’s work on matters related to sex, abortion, and the family, characterizes her as a “complete ideologue” who will “twist constitutional doctrine to suit the liberal cause du jour.” One of Pillard's former colleagues describes her as “Reinhardt in a skirt but less moderate”—a reference to Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, who is widely considered the most radical leftist federal appeals court judge in the United States. And a longtime acquaintance of Pillard states that “if confirmed, I’d guess she’d be the most left-wing judge in the history of the Republic.”
The U.S. Senate confirmed Pillard in a 51-44 vote on December 12, 2013.