Both sides use a Texas justice's record to argue their points
By BENNETT ROTH, Houston Chronicle
May 10, 2005
WASHINGTON - The Senate moved closer Monday to a confrontation over a Republican threat to block a Democratic filibuster of some of President Bush's judicial nominees.
Both sides pointed to the record of Priscilla Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice who was nominated by President Bush four years ago and whose case may be used by Republicans in a procedural challenge to the filibuster.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, charged that Owen's nomination to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has been stalled by Democrats eager to score political points.
"This debate is not about principle; it is all about politics and it is shameful," said Cornyn, who offered a detailed defense of Owen on the Senate floor while standing by an oversize photograph of the nominee.
But critics, including representatives from liberal Texas groups, contend that even on the Texas Supreme Court, now entirely Republican, Owen has stood out for her conservative dissents on issues from abortion to medical malpractice.
"Over time Texans have learned that when Owen is on the bench it is time for us to duck and cover," said Craig McDonald, director of Austin-based Texans for Public Justice.
McDonald was joined at a Capitol press conference by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who were unapologetic for blocking 10 Bush appellate court nominees in his first term.
"We're proud that we blocked Owen because over and over again she defines judicial activism," Schumer said.
Cornyn said the Texas groups opposing Owen, which include the American Association of University Women of Texas, the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas and NARAL Pro-choice Texas, were "outside the mainstream of Texas politics."
The public relations campaign and political maneuvering intensified as the senators returned from a break and marked the four-year anniversary of the first batch of judicial candidates nominated by Bush.
Republicans have threatened to change the rules that allow filibusters on judges and instead require a simple majority for confirmation. Democrats hold 44 of the Senate's 100 seats and it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.
Bush urges simple vote
President Bush, traveling overseas, issued a statement saying his judicial nominees "deserved a simple up-or-down vote by the entire Senate."
As the rhetoric heated up, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged his colleagues to step back.
"Let's try cooperation rather than confrontation, which seems to be what we're doing here lately," he said.
As a peace offering, Reid said Democrats would not block a vote on Thomas Griffith for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Some Democrats have opposed Griffith, considered one of the least controversial nominees.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported Monday that Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., were working on a compromise in which six GOP senators would continue to support the filibuster.
In return Democrats would agree not to filibuster four of the seven appellate court nominees that they oppose. Except in "extreme circumstances" Democrats would also agree to drop any filibuster of future judicial nominees as well as any Supreme Court picks.
The compromise was immediately panned by a number of Republican and Democratic senators, including Kennedy and Cornyn.
Liberal and conservative groups have stepped up efforts to pressure senators not to bend. People for the American Way, a liberal group, has been running ads urging senators to maintain the filibuster.
Meanwhile, a coalition of conservative groups demanded that Republicans fight the filibuster. "You can't compromise with a bully," said Jan La Rue, chief counsel for Concerned Women of America, referring to Democrats. "Losers get to vote, but they don't get to rewrite the rules."