President Bush’s nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals touched off a stormy hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 23 as opponents challenged Owen’s record and supporters tried to dress it up. The nomination also ignited protests from labor, civil rights and women’s organizations, demanding that the committee reject the nomination.
Of particular concern to the White House supporters are criticisms leveled against her by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who criticized several dissents by Owen when both were members of the Texas court. In one instance he called her dissent in a critical abortion case an “unconscionable act of judicial activism.” On another occasion Gonzales accused her of using “arguments based on a flawed premise” in an important environmental case and, in a case concerning jury trial rights, he said Owen attempted to use “judicial sleight-of-hand” to circumvent the Texas Constitution.
Gonzales has since tried to minimize the impact of his remarks. His effort made little impression on Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), who told reporters Gonzales’ criticism “shows she [Owen] is even outside the conservative stream of the Texas Supreme Court.”
In a statement calling for the Senate to reject the Owen nomination, NARAL said, “Priscilla Owen is a dedicated conservative judicial activist whose record … gives us great concern. In almost every case concerning reproductive rights … [she] sought to restrict a woman’s right to choose.” NARAL added that the Fifth Circuit’s record on reproductive rights “would place a woman’s right to choose in serious jeopardy if Owen is confirmed.”
Others were equally sharp in their call for rejection of the Owen nomination. Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, called Owen’s record on reproductive choice and employee rights “disturbing.” He said her confirmation would be especially harmful to the citizens of the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“In numerous dissents as a Texas Supreme Court Justice, Owen has taken positions that would have effectively rewritten the law or disregarded the express language of the law, often to the detriment of the rights and interests of ordinary Americans,” Neas said, adding: “Owen has sought to make the law from the bench in such areas as discrimination and employee rights, reproductive rights, environmental issues and public information rights, and consumer and citizen rights.”
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), said Owen’s penchant for judicial activism “may have earned her Bush’s nomination to the Fifth Circuit, but it should not win her a seat on the Court of Appeals.”
Gandy said in addition to disdaining women’s rights, Owen, who has close ties to Karl Rove, a senior White House staff member, “has demonstrated a commitment to money over morality.”
In 1994, Enron endorsed her and contributed $8,600 to her successful bid for election to the Texas Supreme Court. Two years later, she wrote the majority opinion that reversed a lower court decision, saving the company $250,000 in taxes. According to Texans for Public Justice, the court ruled in Enron’s favor in five out of six cases. Texans for Public Justice is in the forefront of the Texas campaign to defeat Owen
Ed Sills, communications director of the Texas AFL-CIO, said Owen “is a judge who has let her ideology seep into her opinions.” She sits on the far right of a court,” all of whose members are Republicans, and conservative Republicans at that,” Sills told the World in a telephone interview.
Sills said the Texas court “is consistently anti-worker on workers’ compensation and labor-management relations.”
Kae McLaughlin, executive director of Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (TARAL) said, “Owen is a result-oriented, conservative activist whose nomination should be rejected.”
Danielle Tierney, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, said, “If approved for a lifetime appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Owen’s judicial activism could roll back rights across the state and throughout the region.”
In March public outrage and organized opposition forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject Mississippi legislator Charles Pickering, Bush’s first nominee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the time, NARAL said, “We truly hope the President will work with the Senate more closely in the future to avoid controversial nominees whose views are out of step with the majority of Americans. However, on behalf of our membership, NARAL will continue to closely monitor the records of all nominees and will continue to oppose those whose views threaten the right to choose.”
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