Filibustering Priscilla OwenApril 17, 2003
Senators opposing Priscilla Owen, a nominee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, are considering a filibuster to head off her confirmation vote. Filibusters are an extreme measure in which a minority of senators block an issue from being voted on. But the system for picking judges, which should be a relatively nonpartisan effort to seat jurists who reflect broad American values, has broken down. Filibustering Judge Owen's confirmation would send the Bush administration two important messages: the president must stop packing the courts with ideologues, and he must show more respect for the Senate's role.
At Judge Owen's confirmation hearings, it was abundantly clear that she is far to the right of most Americans and that her ideology drives her decisions. On the Texas Supreme Court, she argued in one case that a minor seeking an abortion could be required to prove that she was awareof the religious objections to abortion. Judge Owen has also consistently ruled against workers, accident victims and victims of discrimination.
It is not by chance that the Senate is being asked to confirm someone with these views. The White House has culled the legal profession to find nominees with aggressive conservative agendas. It is asking senators to approve, along with Judge Owen, Carolyn Kuhl, who was a strong supporter of maintaining the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which discriminated against blacks; Jeffrey Sutton, a lawyer who has severely set back the rights of the disabled; and James Leon Holmes, who has compared abortion to the Holocaust.
Judge Owen was voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, but the administration renominated her when Republicans took control. Ignoring the committee's decision is only one in a growing list of ways the White House and its allies have politicized judicial selection. The latest, and most disturbing, move came when former President George Bush held a fund-raiser for a group that will run ads attacking senators who do not fall into lock step behind the administration's nominees.
Many senators have stood up to the administration's assault on an independent judiciary, but others have been too silent. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who represents California, one of the nation's most diverse states, should be a stronger voice against nominees like Judge Owen and Judge Kuhl, who have shown disregard for victims of discrimination. Senator Arlen Specter, who comes from Pennsylvania, a state with a proud labor tradition, should be speaking out against nominees like Judge Owen and Deborah Cook, who reflexively favor corporations over the little guy.
The filibuster is not a tool to be used lightly. But the Senate has been right to use it against the nomination of Miguel Estrada, who is hiding his views on legal issues. It should do the same to stop the once-rejected Judge Owen, and tell extreme conservatives in the Bush administration to stop trying to hijack the federal judiciary.