Divided Senate confirms OwenResentment, criticism linger as vote mostly follows party lines
By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT / Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, May 26, 2005
WASHINGTON – After 22 days of Senate debate, three filibusters and nine hours in the witness chair, Priscilla Owen's four-year confirmation odyssey is over.
On a 55-43 mostly party-line vote, the Senate on Wednesday approved the Texas Supreme Court justice's elevation to the federal appellate bench, ending one of the most bitter judicial fights of recent years.
The action marked the first fruit of a deal struck Monday by 14 Senate centrists that averted, at least temporarily, a showdown over the Democrats' use of the filibuster to derail some of President Bush's appellate nominees.
Justice Owen, who hasn't granted interviews during the confirmation process, offered no comment.
Mr. Bush applauded Justice Owen's confirmation to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. "I urge the Senate to build on this progress and provide my judicial nominees the up-or-down votes they deserve," he said.
The atmosphere was less positive on Capitol Hill, where both sides revisited their grievances.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., deplored the attacks waged against the Texas judge by Democrats and liberal interest groups.
"A gentle woman, accomplished lawyer and brilliant Texas jurist was unconscionably denied an up-or-down vote for more than four years," he said. "The minority distorted her record, cast aspersions on her abilities and rendered her almost unrecognizable."
Democrats, for their part, lamented the appointment of a woman they consider a right-wing judicial activist. They blamed Mr. Bush for forcing the fight by picking jurists they view as outside the legal mainstream.
In her decade on the Texas court, critics charge, Justice Owen has compiled a record hostile to consumers, workers and women's reproductive rights.
"Average middle-class families will be hurt by her decisions," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said after the vote. "That's why her getting on the bench is regrettable."
Even her critics acknowledge, however, that her move to the 5th Circuit isn't likely to usher in a sea change.
"We were against her on the principle that judges with such an activist, pro-business background as Owen do not deserve lifetime appointments," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, a public interest group. "Having said that, her confirmation likely won't have much of an impact on the 5th Circuit, which is one of the most conservative circuits in the United States today."
Just three senators crossed party lines on the vote: Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.
The three were part of the "Gang of 14" that defused a looming Senate meltdown with a deal that preserved the filibuster while ensuring votes on Justice Owen and two other appellate nominees.
With many exploring the deal's likely effect on future judicial battles, some paused to savor the day's developments.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who steered Justice Owen through the confirmation process, was eager to talk to her. After the vote, she obtained the judge's cellphone number from Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, who had crossed the Capitol to congratulate the Texas senators on his former law school classmate's confirmation.
"She has been so gracious throughout this process, never uttering a word that would show annoyance at the way she's been treated," Ms. Hutchison said. "But it's been a difficult time for her ... to see the distortions, to not feel comfortable refuting any of those distortions or being able to speak for herself except at the hearing."
Ms. Hutchison said she was sure the bruising process wouldn't affect the judge's performance on the federal bench. "I think she will do exactly what she thinks is right," the senator said. "I think she has not been affected, in any way, professionally by what has happened to her."
Said Mr. McDonald, "Let's hope that's true."
Staff writer Todd J. Gillman contributed to this report.