Lawyers fight Bush judicial nominee

MILWAUKEE – On Aug. 30, phone calls, e-mails and faxes came in and out of the downtown office here that houses the city’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, in preparation for a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Wisconsin is the only state with two senators on the committee, and both were considered swing votes in the fate of the nomination of Priscilla Owen, which was defeated Sept. 5. George W. Bush nominated Owen in May to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and she received a confirmation hearing in July.

One such fax included a letter signed by over 100 Texas lawyers, including former Chief Justice Charles McGarry of the Texas Supreme Court. The letter calls McGarry’s former benchmate Priscilla Owen “an activist judge from the far right with no respect for the rule of law,” who is unable to “treat all parties with the same fairness.”

Over 40 Wisconsin attorneys had also signed onto their own letter opposing Owen. The letter states that Owen’s “questionable ethics and temperament make it clear that she is not qualified.”

Owen is known in Texas as “Justice Enron.” According to the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), Enron has been her largest corporate contributor, and she obligingly issued rulings saving Enron millions. The TPJ report also notes that Owen issued controversial opinions in cases involving HEB Grocery company, whose CEO gave her tens of thousands of dollars and hosted fundraisers in his home, and cast the deciding vote in a malpractice case favoring a law firm that funded her campaign.

She has also been castigated for lobbying and lending her support to campaigns while serving as a judge, and defending the taking of tens of thousands of dollars by her law clerks from firms with cases before her.

Owen is also viewed as a favorite of the anti-abortion lobby. In Texas, a minor seeking an abortion must notify a parent unless a court finds certain circumstances arguing against notification. The Wisconsin letter depicted Owen as stretching the law to find ways never to vote against notification.

“This is not a matter of being pro-choice or not,” said Jeralyn Wendelberger, a Milwaukee-based attorney, “this is a question of whether or not Owen follows the rule of law. Obviously, she does not.”

The battle over Justice Owen will not be the last. Many of the same attorneys in this fight also helped defeat the nomination of Charles Pickering to the same circuit and are already looking ahead to other Bush judicial appointments. “You look at some of these nominees, and one is just worse than the last,” said Henry Hamilton III, a federal administrative judge in Milwaukee.

Hamilton is already focusing on Judge Dennis Shedd, a former aide to Strom Thurmond nominated to the Fourth Circuit. “Some of the things we’ve learned about Shedd are just unbelievable,” said Hamilton.

The author can be reached at g.grass@justice.com