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Controversy Surrounds Bush Judicial Appointee

Priscilla Owen, one of President Bush's judicial nominees, appears headed for a polarizing battle in confirmation hearings before a Democratic-controlled Senate committee. 

The scrutiny Texas Supreme Court Justice Owen faces could be similar to that drawn by Mississippi judge Charles Pickering, whose nomination the Judiciary Committee rejected along party lines in March. 

"This is going to be a very controversial nomination," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. The liberal-leaning advocacy group opposes Owen's nomination. 

Originally scheduled for this Thursday, Owen's hearing was delayed until next Tuesday to accommodate other Senate business. Bush nominated Owen in May 2001 and sent the nomination to the Senate in September 2001. 

Voices of supporters and detractors have grown louder in recent weeks as Owen's hearing has neared. Bush has picked Owen for a slot on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. 

A bipartisan throng of Texans, led by Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Phil Gramm, commended Owen after meeting with Bush Tuesday about her nomination. The meeting was not open to reporters. Bush faced criticism for not trying early enough to rescue Pickering's nomination. 

Gramm called Owen a brilliant lawyer and outstanding judge. He pointed out that she had been elected in statewide races twice in Texas. 

"Things are being made up," Gramm said. "A picture is being painted that is totally inaccurate." 

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice John Hill called Owen a mainstream jurist. 

"I know a rodeo when I see one and it looks like that's what's going to begin here," said Hill, of Houston. 

Recently, Owen's friends and foes have held battling news conferences in Texas. 

Last week, a coalition of labor, consumer and women's rights groups in Texas labeled Owen an "ultraconservative activist" who opposes consumer and reproductive rights. 

This week, the Liberty Legal Institute, which says it specializes in the defense of religious freedoms and First Amendment rights, called Owen a qualified and well-liked judge. The institute and others accused liberal activists of "hijacking" the nomination process. 

Owen probably will face the same tough questioning as Pickering, a U.S. District judge in Mississippi, whom Bush also chose for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pickering was opposed by many civil rights groups, and supporters and opponents heavily lobbied Judiciary Committee members. 

Owen is sure to be scrutinized for a dissenting opinion she wrote in a Texas case involving a teenager asking for an exemption from a state law that required her to tell her parents before getting an abortion. The law allows exemptions in certain cases. 

The court voted 6-3 to allow the abortion without parental consent. Owen dissented in an opinion that was highly criticized by then Texas Supreme Court Justice Al Gonzales, now Bush's white House counsel. 

Gonzales wrote a concurring opinion and criticized dissenters for trying to insert personal ideologies and take the law beyond what was written by the Legislature. 

"To construe the Parental Notification Act so narrowly as to eliminate bypasses, or to create hurdles that simply are not to be found in the words of the statute, would be an unconscionable act of judicial activism," Gonzales wrote in the 2000 opinion. 

Gonzales could not be reached for comment. 

Neas said Gonzales' opinion underscores the reason People for the American Way opposes Owen's nomination. "When she doesn't agree with a law passed by the Legislature, she tries to amend that law by her judicial opinions," Neas said. 

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, a Democrat, said the opinion was taken "grossly" out of context. 

"You don't agree with any judge all the time; if you do, you probably aren't a very good judge," Hutchison said. "In this particular case he thought she was wrong and he stated so plainly."