Priscilla Owen was first nominated by President Bush to a federal
appeals-court post in May 2001 - four years ago.
That's enough time to earn a college degree. So it's hard to
believe that there is anything that isn't already known about the
Texas Supreme Court justice.
And yet, four years into her battle to win Senate confirmation,
clouds of rhetoric are obscuring exactly who Ms. Owen is.
Republican senators say she is a careful and conservative jurist
who adheres to the law rather than imposing her policy preferences
by judicial fiat. She is an Episcopal Sunday school teacher who won
84 percent of the vote in her last Texas Supreme Court election and
garnered the American Bar Association's highest rating - "well
Democrats say she is a conservative judicial activist, intent on
enforcing restrictive social views on anyone who steps into her
courtroom. Some allege she was handpicked in 1994 by Karl Rove, now
a key adviser to Mr. Bush. Democrats say her judicial record shows
she is a pro-business, antienvironment judge who takes a narrow view
in civil rights cases.
If confirmed, she would become one of 17 judges on the Fifth US
Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans. But before that, she
might earn a paragraph in American history as the judicial nominee
whose candidacy sparked the so-called nuclear option in the US
That special status as the first Bush nominee to test Senate
majority leader Bill Frist's nuclear threat may explain at least
some of the harsh rhetoric being used by her opponents.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has called her "a candidate
on the far fringes of legal thinking."
Republicans say she deserves better. "This debate is not about
principle; it is all about politics, and it is shameful," says Sen.
John Cornyn of Texas, who served on the state's Supreme Court with
Owen. "Any fair examination of Justice Owen's record demonstrates
how unconvincing the critics' arguments are."
Republicans have tried four times to bring her nomination to the
Senate floor. Fifty-three senators have supported her - more than
enough to win a life-time seat on the federal bench, but seven votes
shy of the 60 needed to break a Democratic filibuster.
Democrats are standing their ground. They say she is the second
most frequent dissenter on an already conservative high court.
"She is immoderate," says Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. "If
there was ever a judge who would substitute her views for the law,
it is Judge Owen."
One frequent refrain among Democrats is that even Bush's own
attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, criticized Owen's judicial
stance in a 2000 case when they served together on the Texas Supreme
"Gonzales has said she was guilty of 'an unconscionable act of
judicial activism,' " said Senator Kennedy in a recent speech on the
The comment prompted a response from Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch
of Utah. "They know this claim is fiction, but they nonetheless
continue to launch it," he said.
At issue is a Texas Supreme Court ruling in a case that dealt
with the judicial bypass section of a Texas law requiring parental
notification prior to a minor obtaining an abortion. The case
involved a high school senior who said she was fearful that if her
parents knew she was getting an abortion, they would cut off
financial assistance to her, including payments for her to attend
The trial judge and an appeals-court panel declined to authorize
the judicial bypass, ruling that the girl must notify at least one
of her parents prior to the abortion. The Texas Supreme Court
reversed both courts, saying that the state bypass provision was
broad enough to encompass the girl's case.
Three justices wrote dissents. Two of the dissents suggested that
the Texas law was written narrowly by the state Legislature to bar a
bypass under most circumstances, and one of those two dissents
accused the majority of engaging in judicial activism. …