Friday, September 6, 2002

Senate Democrats dealt a sharp rebuke to President Bush on Thursday, voting along party lines to deny his friend and fellow Texan, Priscilla Owen, a lifetime appointment to federal court.

Senators reject Owen for appeals court seat

Owen nomination stopped in Judiciary Committee

September 6, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats dealt a sharp rebuke to President Bush on Thursday, voting along party lines to deny his friend and fellow Texan, Priscilla Owen, a lifetime appointment to federal court.

Democrats on the divided Judiciary Committee said they hoped Owen's refusal would jolt Bush into rejecting conservative ideologues for future judicial nominations.

But fuming Republicans rejected that label for Owen and vowed to resubmit her nomination if voters return the Senate to GOP control this November. Democrats hold a one-seat Senate majority, giving them a 10-9 advantage on the Judiciary Committee -- their margin of victory in three votes on Owen.

"This is not going to be the last vote," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. "If the American people are tired of what the Democrats are doing to our president and his nominees, they can fix it on Election Day by voting for Republican candidates."

Bush defended Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice since 1994, as an outstanding judge brought down by political gamesmanship.

"What the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have done to Justice Owen is shameful, even by Washington standards," Bush said. "They have determined that a nominee's experience, academic credentials and character are inconsequential.

"Washington is a tough and ugly town at times. Treating a fine woman this way is bad for the country; it's bad for our bench. And I don't appreciate it one bit," Bush said.

Owen declined to comment, but Gov. Rick Perry and other Texas Republicans denounced the vote, hoping to generate a voter backlash that would keep Gramm's seat in GOP hands after he retires. But Republican candidate John Cornyn may have difficulty using the issue to gain traction in his November election against Democrat Ron Kirk, said Allan Saxe, a University of Texas at Arlington political science professor.

"I just don't think the general public follows judicial nominations all that closely. If you asked most Texans who Judge Owen is, they couldn't tell you, even though they elected her," Saxe said.

However, GOP stalwarts are going to be angry and motivated, he said, and the national party's attention may refocus on Texas, where Kirk's campaign seems to have gained momentum in recent weeks, Saxe said. "I think it may rejuvenate the Republican base back in Texas," he said. Thursday's vote was Bush's second federal court nominee to be denied by the committee. In March, Charles Pickering also was rejected by a party-line vote. As a matter of course, her name, like Pickering's, will not be returned to the White House until the congressional session ends. If the Senate returns to Republican control, resubmitting Owen would be a possibility, a White House aide said.

Owen, like Pickering, was nominated to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the New Orleans-based court with jurisdiction over Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. She was not present at Thursday's vote, held in a standing-room-only committee room.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., portrayed Owen as an extremist whose conservative bias was displayed in pro-business, anti-consumer and anti-abortion-rights opinions on the Texas court.

"She is the most recent in a long line of nominees who would bring a hard-line ideological agenda to the bench," he said.

Leahy noted that Reena Raggi, a Bush nominee to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, was approved 19-0 Thursday despite being a conservative Republican.

"We have every reason to believe she will serve . . . as a fair and impartial judge. In sharp contrast is . . . Priscilla Owen, a nominee whose record is too extreme even for the very conservative Texas Supreme Court," said Leahy, referring to majority opinions that criticized several Owen dissents.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., cast her first negative vote against a woman nominee, calling it the most difficult of her Senate career because she liked Owen and thought she handled herself "very well" with the committee.

But Feinstein said she was swayed largely by Owen's opinions on a Texas law that allows minors, with court approval, to seek an abortion without notifying their parents. Feinstein faulted Owen for trying to add legal obstacles not present in the law, such as requiring the girls to be informed about the religious implications of their decision. "I really hope the administration is listening. I do want to see mainstream justices," Feinstein said.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Owen appropriately justified her opinions in the abortion case by turning to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. "They are using abortion as a litmus test, even though they were the chief complainers that we might have used abortion as a litmus test (during the Clinton administration)," Hatch said. "She was attacked with orchestrated deceptions, distortions and demagoguery."

Hatch said he feared Thursday's vote would change the climate in the Senate and spur Republicans to assess future judicial nominees based on ideology.

"I don't want to see us go to that low degree. If we start doing that, the next thing you know, the federal judiciary's going to be very, very severely harmed. But it was severely harmed today in what happened," he said. "Today is a day I believe we will long remember and regret, on both sides of the aisle."

After the vote, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, brandished a packet of pro-Owen editorials written by newspapers as diverse as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

"Everything that is written about Priscilla Owen in these editorials is that she is the most qualified person that has ever been turned down," Hutchison said. "When she has a fair vote in a Republican-controlled Senate, she will win."

After losing the vote to approve Owen's nomination, Hatch unsuccessfully tried to forward her name to the entire Senate with no recommendation or with a negative recommendation.

"I must say I'm shocked," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, ticking off Owen's credentials -- graduating cum laude from Baylor University, earning the highest score on the state bar exam, gaining the American Bar Association's highest rating.

"It's very hard to maintain a cooperative atmosphere and civility in the Senate when you see this sort of conduct, this kind of vote by just 10 members of the Democratic Party on the Senate Judiciary Committee," Lott said.

But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., deflected blame from Democrats.

"We're divided on party lines. I think every member of the committee regrets that. But I think you have to look at why we're divided," he said. "The White House has to understand that they cannot pack the courts with only conservative nominees and expect this committee to be a rubber stamp."