Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Senate appeared likely to confirm Texas jurist Priscilla Owen to a federal appeals court by Wednesday after blocking delaying tactics that has stalled her nomination for more than four years.

Owen inches closer to confirmation

By Dave Montgomery, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
May 24, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The Senate appeared likely to confirm Texas jurist Priscilla Owen to a federal appeals court by Wednesday after blocking delaying tactics that has stalled her nomination for more than four years.

Adhering to the terms of an 11th-hour compromise, the Senate voted 81-18 Tuesday to end five days of debate that began last week and then prepared to vote on her confirmation to the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Owen's confirmation seemed assured after Democrats agreed to withdraw a threatened filibuster against Owen and two other judicial nominees. The Democratic pledges were part of a compromise announced late Monday by 14 centrist senators.

A final vote is expected Wednesday although it could come as early as late Tuesday. President Bush, who has described Owen as "a great lady," nominated the 50-year-old Texas Supreme Court justice to the three-state appeals court on May 9, 2001, in one of his earliest appointments. But Democrats repeatedly battled to derail the nomination, as critics portrayed her as an ultra-conservative jurist who laced her court rulings with an anti-abortion, pro-business bias.

Owen's supporters, including both Texas senators and colleagues on the Supreme Court, denounced the attacks as politically-motivated, portraying the nominee as an outstanding jurist who bases her court decisions strictly on "the rule of law."

"She's been a solid judge," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said during the final hours of debate. "What's been said about her has been cut-and-paste character assassination."

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, argued that Owen is "out of the mainstream."

Owen was enroute to Washington as the Senate began debate, according to her office.

If confirmed, Owen will fill an eight-year-old vacancy on the appeals court, which serves Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and is part of a nationwide tier of appeals courts just below the Supreme Court.

The 17-member court, which now has two vacancies, has been plagued by a chronic case of backlog and has been periodically forced to declare itself in a state of judicial emergency.

Owen would replace Texan Will Garwood, who left in 1997. A former corporate attorney who specialized in oil and gas legislation, Owen has served on the Supreme Court since 1995. Though she is generally regarded as one of the court's more conservative justices, Owen says that her decisions are based strictly on "a fair and consistent application of the law.

"My decisions cannot be based, and are not based, on whether a party is rich or poor or who their lawyer is," Owen said in a 2002 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "My decisions are based on the law -- whether that is a state, a United States Supreme Court decision or a prior decision from my court."

Owen also told senators that "the picture that some special interest groups have painted of me is wrong.

The final round of debate recycled past arguments evolving around the nominee, But several of her Democratic critics acknowledged that she appeared to be heading for confirmation.

"After all these years, I'm sure the president will get the votes to put Priscilla Owen on the court," said Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-N.V., said he was hopeful that Owen would "surprise" her detractors by becoming "more sensitive" to a broader array of views as a member of the regional appeals court.

Owen's nomination battle was one of the longest in U.S. history, far surpassing that of other, better known nominees, including those for the Supreme Court. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said she had been "held hostage" by partisan politics.

As part of the comprise that broke the stalemate, Democrats consented to an up-or-down vote on Owen and fellow judicial nominees William H. Pryor Jr. and Janice Rogers Brown -- but offered no such assurance on two other nominees, William G. Myers III or Henry Saad.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas., expressed skepticism over what he called a secret agreement, saying the compromise "does not give us any assurances" that other judicial nominees will come up for a confirmation vote. He also questioned part of the compromise that permitted judicial filibusters only "under extraordinary circumstances."

"Extraordinary circumstances are in the eye of the beholder," Cornyn said.

The compromise emerged as a last-ditch effort to avert Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's threat to change Senate rules to make it easier for members to stop a filibuster, a delaying tactic employing endless debate. Democrats denounced Frist's threat as "the nuclear option" and threatened to slow Senate business if he persisted.

"We're pleased that the nuclear option was averted and disappointed that Owen will likely be confirmed," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, part of a coalition of groups opposing her nomination.