Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Senate Republicans marked the four-year anniversary of the nomination of Justice Priscilla Owen to an appellate court Monday with calls for an up-or-down vote and a threat to ban the filibuster.

Rhetoric heats up in fight over judicial nominees

By Gary Martin, San Antonio Express-News
May 10, 2005

WASHINGTON _ Senate Republicans marked the four-year anniversary of the nomination of Justice Priscilla Owen to an appellate court Monday with calls for an up-or-down vote and a threat to ban the filibuster.

"Walls of this obstruction must stop," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "It is hurting the nominees, it is hurting the Senate, it is hurting the American people."

Democrats were joined by Texas civil rights groups that renewed their criticism that Owen is a judicial activist and warned that GOP threats against the filibuster would end a system of checks and balances.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate has approved 205 of the president's judicial nominees and rejected only 10.

"The White House would rather pick a fight than judges," Reid said.

In a gesture of good will, Reid offered a Senate vote on Thomas Griffith, a former Senate lawyer nominated to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Griffith was tapped when Miguel Estrada withdrew after two years of Democratic opposition.

But in a statement released by the White House, Bush said each nominee should receive a vote from the full Senate.

In news conferences on Capitol Hill, both sides stepped up their rhetoric Monday as the Senate contemplates a vote to end unlimited debate, known as the filibuster, on judicial selections.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that for 214 years the Senate has given an up-or-down vote to a president's judicial nominees, yet it has denied Owen a vote.

"That's all we are asking for today," Cornyn said, "a restoration of that 214-year precedent."

Owen was nominated by Bush to serve on the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Her nomination was blocked in the 108th Congress when Republicans were unable to end a Democratic filibuster.

Earlier this year, Bush again nominated Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice and Austin Sunday school teacher.

Her nomination was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee along a straight party-line vote, but it faces opposition and the threat of a Democratic filibuster in the full Senate.

Texas civil rights groups were in Washington on Monday to back the Democratic opposition.

Texans for Public Justice and the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League took part in a news conference to draw attention to Owen's judicial rulings.

"The opposition to Owen came straight out of the heart of Texas," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.

McDonald said Owen is "uniquely extreme and uniquely activist" in her opinions that favor big business and anti-abortion and anti-consumer ideologies.

Owen has a penchant to write law from the bench, McDonald charged, "usually on behalf of the powerful and at the expense of the powerless."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said "there is no question that when you look up judicial activist in the dictionary, you see a picture of Priscilla Owen."

Owen is one of seven Bush judicial nominees Democrats have threatened to filibuster.

Republicans, who hold a 55-44 majority in the Senate (there is one independent), are powerless to stop it under existing rules, which require 60 votes for cloture.

Frist is considering changing the rule to allow a simple majority to cut off a filibuster.

Some key Republicans, including Vice President Dick Cheney and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, have warned the GOP leadership to move cautiously.

The seat on the 5th Circuit, which handles cases in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, has been vacant since 1997.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and then-Sen. Phil Gramm, both Texas Republicans, blocked two of President Clinton's nominees to the 5th Circuit.

Clinton nominated federal Judge Jorge Rangel of Corpus Christi in 1997 to fill the vacancy.

When Rangel withdrew because of opposition, Clinton then nominated federal Judge Enrique Moreno in 1999.

The Republican news conference featured two conservative Hispanic groups _ the Latino Coalition and the National Coalition of Latino Clergy _ who called on Congress to drop its opposition to judicial candidates.

Asked about GOP opposition to Rangel and Moreno, Robert de Posada, Latino Coalition president, said: "We criticized that then, and we criticize that now."