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Bush Court Nominee Is Voted Down

Senate: Panel's 10-9 party-line tally is second defeat for the president, who calls it 'bad for the country.... And I don't appreciate it one bit.'

September 06, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats rejected President Bush's choice of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen for a U.S. appeals court Thursday, calling her a conservative "judicial activist" who had regularly sided with big business and insurance firms over injured workers and consumers.

The 10-9 party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee marked the second defeat for a Bush court nominee this year. Bush reacted angrily to the vote.

"A handful of senators, acting out of pure politics, did not let this good woman's name go forward," the president said in Louisville, Ky., where he spoke at a GOP fund-raiser. It's "bad for the country. It's bad for our bench. And I don't appreciate it one bit, and neither do the American people."

Despite the rejection, the committee has approved 79 of Bush's judicial picks. They include New York Judge Reena Raggi, who was put on the federal bench by President Reagan in 1987. Bush selected her for the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York, and she won quick, unanimous approval Thursday.

But more fights loom for the bitterly divided Judiciary Committee.

Later this month, the panel expects to hold a hearing on Miguel Estrada, a highly regarded and staunchly conservative Washington attorney who was chosen for the appeals court here. In October, University of Utah Law School professor Michael McConnell is expected to come before the committee. A scholar on religion and the Constitution, McConnell was chosen for the appeals court in Denver.

With Thursday's vote, Democrats--who hold the slimmest of majorities on the committee--said they were sending a message to the White House that conservative "activists and ideologues" would face trouble.

"I really hope the administration listens to this vote," Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said before voting against Owen's nomination. Bush won a close election, she said, and "there is no mandate to skew the courts."

"Mainstream conservatives will sail through this committee," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), noting the Raggi vote. "Activists and ideologues are going to have a more difficult voyage."

During a daylong hearing in July, the Democrats cited a series of rulings in which Owen, sometimes alone in dissent, voted to reverse jury verdicts in favor of injured people, workers or consumers. They alleged she bent the law to favor business interests.

In the wake of the collapse of Enron Corp. and corporate accounting scandals, Democrats said they were loath to promote what they called a reflexively pro-business judge to the federal appeals court.

In March, the committee rejected the appeals court nomination of Mississippi Judge Charles W. Pickering, a friend and ally of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Owen's defeat was more personal for Bush and his Texas aides. Bush political advisor Karl Rove played a key role in Owen's successful campaign for the Texas Supreme Court in 1994, and Bush named her in his first round of judicial selections. She was slated for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Washington is "a tough and ugly town at times. We saw that today," Bush said.

Before Thursday's vote, Republicans praised Owen as a superbly qualified judge whose record was distorted by "Washington smear groups" and "left-wing lobbyists."

The American Bar Assn.'s screening committee gave Owen, 47, a unanimous rating of well qualified.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Owen's defeat was the first time the panel had rejected a judicial candidate who had a unanimous well-qualified rating from the ABA. He added that Owen would have won confirmation on the Senate floor because Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat, said he would vote for her.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) interrupted to read the names of 10 of President Clinton's judicial nominees who had top ratings from the ABA, but were blocked when Republicans controlled the panel.

Leahy described Raggi as a conservative Republican nominee who has proved herself as a "fair and impartial judge. In sharp contrast is Justice Priscilla Owen, a nominee whose record is too extreme even for the very conservative Texas Supreme Court."

Abortion rights advocates opposed Owen because of several opinions interpreting the Texas law that requires teenagers to notify a parent before obtaining an abortion.

Teenagers who are judged to be mature or fear abuse by a parent can obtain a waiver. But in dissents, Owen refused to go along with these waivers and said the young women should be required to consider religious perspectives concerning abortion.

Her detractors and supporters differed about whether her opinions followed the law or revised it.

The battle over Owen's nomination echoed the ideological fights that have shaken several state supreme courts.

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