Pitlyk’s confirmation is a victory for Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who have sought a dramatic and deeply consequential reshaping of the federal judiciary, installing a dizzying number of judges and energizing Republican voters.
The new appointment has also been seen as yet another mark of the influence of the Federalist Society, a conservative nonprofit organization, over Trump’s selection of judges. Pitlyk is a Federalist Society member.
Pitlyk is also the latest of Trump’s nominees to receive a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association, which has long reviewed the competence of nominees for the federal bench. In a Sept. 24 letter to lawmakers, William Hubbard, chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, wrote that Pitlyk’s “experience to date has a very substantial gap, namely the absence of any trial or even real litigation experience.”
“Ms. Pitlyk has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel, whether civil or criminal,” Hubbard wrote. “She has never examined a witness. Though Ms. Pitlyk has argued one case in a court of appeals, she has not taken a deposition. She has not argued any motion in a state or federal trial court. She has never picked a jury. She has never participated at any stage of a criminal matter.”
Her experience does, however, include clerking for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh when he was a federal appellate court judge — just like Justin Walker, another recently confirmed federal judge the ABA deemed unqualified.
But Pitlyk’s defenders shrugged off the assessment, claiming the group has a liberal slant, something ABA leaders have denied.
“President Trump once again demonstrated a commitment to the rule of law in advancing judicial nominees who are exceptionally qualified,” Kelly Shackelford, the president of First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty legal group that has represented antiabortion organizations, said in a statement. “Sarah Pitlyk has spent most of her career defending our most fundamental freedoms, including religious liberty.”
After her confirmation, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Pitlyk’s home state, praised the new judge’s “strong legal experience, sharp intellect, and commitment to the rule of law.
“I was proud to recommend her to President Trump,” Hawley said in a statement, “and I am confident that she will serve the people of Missouri as a principled and fair judge for decades to come.”
But in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned just how evenhanded Pitlyk would be.
“Pitlyk’s record is extremely troubling and raises a number of questions about her ability to be a fair and impartial judge,” Feinstein said.
Pointing to dubious claims about abortion, the senator added: “It is disqualifying for any judicial nominee to make unfounded and unsupported claims, especially in a court of law.”
Her critics have highlighted inflammatory declarations such as the one she made in an amicus brief opposing California’s protections of assisted reproduction technology, noted Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern. In the filing, Pitlyk asserted that “the practice of surrogacy has grave effects on society, such as diminished respect for motherhood and the unique mother-child bond.”
She has also argued that surrogacy “is harmful to mothers and children” and is a “practice society should not be enforcing.” Her position — that states should treat embryos like humans — would likely outlaw abortion, in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, Stern wrote.
Vanita Gupta, a former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Pitlyk’s confirmation “is deeply disturbing.”
“She is exactly the type of judicial nominee that Trump promised to fill the courts with: an individual who threatens reproductive rights and access to abortion,” Gupta, now the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. “With Pitlyk’s confirmation, the administration is betting on her to carry out their agenda for decades to come.”
The appointment may resonate louder in Missouri, where Planned Parenthood has said abortion rights are “hanging on by a thread” after the state health department’s attempts to close Missouri’s last abortion clinic and the governor’s signing of a strict abortion ban.
“Missourians already have to navigate an impossible landscape just to access abortion,” acting Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson said in a statement.
The clinic, which is operated by Planned Parenthood, has previously fought strictures on abortion in federal court, and if its representatives do so again, they may find themselves arguing their case in front of Pitlyk.
Clarification: A previous version of this report described the First Liberty Institute as an “antiabortion legal group.” It is more accurately described as a “religious liberty legal group that has represented antiabortion organizations.” The story has been updated.