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One of America’s top abortion rights lawyers was just confirmed as a federal judge

Julie Rikelman, the abortion rights movement’s top Supreme Court litigator, will serve on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

A woman in black speaks into microphones in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.
Julie Rikelman, then the senior litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, speaks to the media after arguing before the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, December 1, 2022.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Julie Rikelman is arguably the nation’s preeminent attorney representing the cause of abortion rights. She is almost certainly the most important pro-abortion rights litigator of her generation. And now she will serve as a federal appellate judge.

Among other things, Rikelman made a doomed effort to save Roe v. Wade from a hostile Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022). Two years earlier, in June Medical Services v. Russo (2020), she unexpectedly convinced conservative Chief Justice John Roberts to preserve abortion rights for a few years before the Court’s new 6-3 Republican majority eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 51-43 to confirm Rikelman to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, making her one of the few lawyers with significant experience representing abortion rights causes to be confirmed to the federal bench. Prior to her confirmation, Rikelman served as senior litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights for about a dozen years.

That said, it is far from clear that Rikelman will have much impact on abortion jurisprudence as a federal judge. Abortion-related cases make up a tiny percentage of the federal docket. And the First Circuit hears appeals from federal court decisions in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island — which means that Rikelman will not have jurisdiction over red states known for their hostility to abortion rights.

Still, her appointment is an important symbolic win for abortion rights advocates. For a long time, a history of abortion rights advocacy was toxic to presidential nominees so long as Republicans had enough votes in the Senate to block such a nominee.

During President Barack Obama’s first term, for example, Republicans successfully filibustered Dawn Johnsen’s nomination to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, a powerful position that interprets the Constitution and federal laws for executive branch agencies and the White House. Johnsen had previously served as a lawyer at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Republicans took issue with a footnote in a brief she authored, which said that forcing a woman to bear a child against her will is “disturbingly suggestive of involuntary servitude, prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment.”

In 2013, however, the Senate largely eliminated the filibuster for most presidential nominees, allowing those nominees to be confirmed by a simple majority of senators — previously, a 60-vote supermajority was required for confirmation. That allowed presidents of both parties to confirm judges over the opposition of the other party, at least when the president’s party also controlled the Senate.

Former President Donald Trump, for example, appointed many outspoken opponents of abortion to the federal bench, including former lawyers at Christian right advocacy shops, such as Kyle Duncan and Matthew Kacsmaryk, who’ve continued to engage in such advocacy from the bench.

Still, few of Trump’s judges were as prominent as Rikelman, who argued some of the most consequential abortion-related Supreme Court cases of the last decade.

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