An attorney nominated by President Donald Trump for a lifetime federal judgeship left multiple items off her disclosure form to the Senate Judiciary Committee, including the fact that she moderated a panel on the alleged dangers of abortion. During the panel, she supported the work of a doctor who advocates the scientifically unproven theory that women who take contraceptive pills are more likely to die violent deaths.
Wendy Vitter, who was nominated in January to serve as a federal judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, left at least three speeches, one interview, a letter to the editor, and a campaign ad off the questionnaire she submitted to the committee (not all were related to abortion).
Nominees to the federal bench are required to tell the committee about every speech and interview they’ve ever given, and about every article they’ve written, so senators can evaluate whether they’re fit to serve as judges.
Leaving information off these questionnaires is typically a huge red flag for lawmakers.
“Is this an oversight or is this strategic withholding of information?” said Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst political science professor and federal judiciary expert. “If it’s strategic, that raises very serious questions. Whether the Senate Judiciary Republican majority find that troubling or not, I don’t know.”
Vitter currently works as a lawyer for the Archdiocese of New Orleans and is a longtime anti-abortion advocate. In 2017, the New Orleans Right to Life Educational Foundation gave her the “Proudly Pro-Life Award”. She’s perhaps best known, however, as the wife of former Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter.
Wendy Vitter did not respond to VICE News’ repeated requests for comment.
According to a YouTube video posted in November 2013, Vitter led a panel entitled “Abortion Hurts Women's Health” at a Right to Life Louisiana event. One of the panel’s speakers was the anti-abortion activist Angela Lanfranchi, who told attendees that abortion increases women’s risk for breast cancer — despite the fact that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has found no causal link between abortion and a woman’s risk for breast cancer.
In the video, Lanfranchi also encouraged panel attendees to take at look at her brochure entitled “The Pill Kills.” That brochure claims women on the contraceptive pill are more likely to die a violent death, because they are more likely to cheat on their male partners, to face fertility problems, to have unhealthy children, and to have poor relationships with their partners. The brochure concludes, “It is not unreasonable to suspect that such effects could also influence rates of intimate partner violence.”
After Lanfranchi spoke, however, Vitter told attendees to pick up one of her brochures.
“And so the next step, go to Dr. Angela’s website, Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, download it, and at your next physical you walk into your pro-life doctor and say, ‘Have you thought about putting these facts or this brochure in your waiting room?’” Vitter said. “Each one of you can be the pro-life advocate to take the next step.”
None of the brochure’s assertions are supported by scientific evidence. Katherine McHugh, an OB-GYN in Indianapolis, told VICE News that the claims were “blatantly false.”
Vitter also spoke at another anti-abortion event in 2013 that she did not disclose in her questionnaire. In May 2013, Vitter spoke at a rally opposing construction of a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Orleans alongside other anti-abortion activists, including the pro-Trump pundit Mary Matalin, according to press coverage of the event.
In her questionnaire, Vitter admits that her list of speeches is incomplete. Because she often spoke with civic and Republican groups, and campaigned with her husband, Vitter writes, her list includes “only speaking appearances for which I have brief calendar entries or which were discovered through an online search.”
She adds that her list also doesn’t include “wholly personal” talks, such as “toasts, eulogies, and religious instruction or commentary.”
But Dan Goldberg, legal director for the liberal-leaning judicial advocacy group Alliance for Justice, says that doesn’t excuse her omissions, pointing out that many of Vitter’s omitted speeches and articles are easy to find online.
“This is not an entry-level position,” said Goldberg. “This is one of the most important positions in our country, and the fact that she either intentionally or through sloppiness and carelessness did not turn over critical information to the Senate tells you how seriously she’s taking this process.”
In the past, lawmakers haven’t looked kindly on judicial nominees who omit information from their questionnaires. Goodwin Liu, an Obama-era nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, failed to include his participation in several panels and conferences in the questionnaire he originally submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee after his nomination in February 2010. He later included that information in a supplement to the questionnaire, but for Republican legislators, the damage was done.
In a letter to Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, and several others wrote, “At best, this nominee’s extraordinary disregard for the Committee’s constitutional role demonstrates incompetence; at worst, it creates the impression that he knowingly attempted to hide his most controversial work form the Committee.”
Republicans ultimately filibustered Liu, and he was never confirmed.
Vitter’s nomination also worries reproductive health groups. Louisiana, which has just three abortion providers left in the state, has some of the strictest abortion restrictions in the nation; only Mississippi has a comparable number and intensity of restrictions. As a district judge, Vitter will have immense power over state abortion laws.
In 2004, the Eastern District of Louisiana — which Vitter is nominated to serve on — considered the legality of a New Orleans anti-abortion scheme in which a man offered abortion services, but instead misled women into delaying their abortions. In 2010, the court also considered a state law that allowed the Louisiana government to close an abortion facility for violations without warning or allowing the facility to correct any errors.
“They basically have every restriction that exists for abortion access,” Heather Shumaker, senior counsel reproductive rights and health for the National Women’s Law Center, said of Louisiana. “If any upcoming restrictions were to be challenged, [Vitter] would be on the bench considering those restrictions.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee has not scheduled Vitter’s hearing yet.
Cover image: Trump judicial nominee Wendy Vitter praying with husband and then–Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Sen. David Vitter and their family in Kenner, Louisiana, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)