WASHINGTON – Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen defended herself from accusations that she used her position on the bench to change laws to suit her philosophy, a case of judicial activism that both sides of the political aisle say they need to prevent on the courts.
"The picture that some special interest groups have painted of me is wrong," Owen said Tuesday at her Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Owen's appearance before the committee comes more than a year after she was nominated by President Bush to serve on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Leading the opposition to her confirmation is Senate committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has been working closely with liberal special interest groups like People for the American Way and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
Other committee Democrats like Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin say they are undecided about whether to support Owen, and expressed skepticism of her ability to keep her personal beliefs out of her judicial opinions.
"Accusations have been made that Justice Owen too often stretches or even goes beyond the law that's written in the Texas legislature to meet her personal beliefs on several core issues, including abortion and consumer rights," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The dispute over Owen centers around an opinion she gave while on the state Supreme Court opposing an exemption for a 17-year-old girl to get an abortion without notifying her parents first.
Owen denies she injected her own beliefs into the decision.
"The Legislature said that a girl who was under 18 who wants to have an abortion without notifying one of her parents may get a judicial bypass if one of three prongs were met. And the language they chose to put in the judicial bypass was almost verbatim, if not verbatim, taken out of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion," Owen said, adding that she used that language to determine that the girl was unfit to have an abortion without notifying her parents.
The opinion, while in the minority of the court, drew criticism from Bush's White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who at the time was serving with Owen on the high court. Gonzales has since said that he believes that Owen will be a fair and impartial jurist.
Owen's business rulings are also under scrutiny. Since Texas judges are elected, they must seek campaign contributions like any politician would. Owen took $8,600 from now-defunct energy giant Enron, and later wrote a ruling that favored Enron.
But Owen supporters say that arguing that point is a risky line of attack because the opinion for Enron was unanimous, and committee Democrats like Sen. Schumer of New York have also received Enron donations.
Owen does have some supporters both on and off the committee. The American Bar Association has deemed her "well qualified" to serve, the highest rating the lawyers group can assign.
"Justice Owen has shown herself to be a fair and qualified judge committed to following the law," said John Nowacki, director of legal policy at the Free Congress Foundation. "By any objective measure, she is well qualified for a seat on the Court of Appeals."
Some committee Republicans have also expressed support for the nominee, who prior to joining the court was one of the state's most successful commercial litigators.
"If these special interests can convince this committee that this woman is an extremist, then they could convince folks that [Sen. Charles] Schumer is a liberal or I am a conservative. It's just not true," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.
This is not the first time that a Bush nominee has been obstructed by Senate Democrats. Three months ago, committee Democrats blocked the nomination of Judge Charles Pickering to the same court, arguing that he too was a judicial activist.
Democrats have made it clear they are going to hold a very high and tough standard on Bush nominees the same way that Senate Republicans did when Bill Clinton was president and the GOP withheld confirmations on his nominees.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.