WASHINGTON – In an action Republican members said was "crossing a threshold" of congressional irresponsibility, Senate Democrats effectively killed President Bush's nomination of Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen Thursday.
After a series of statements condemning the judge for what they said was her conservative activism on the bench, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected her nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a strict 10 to nine party line vote.
This was the second Bush nominee to be rejected on a party line basis, the first being Judge Charles W. Pickering. Republicans charged that Owen had been consistently endorsed as a well-qualified justice with an unblemished record, and that Democrats for the first time had rejected a nominee based solely on the fact that she did not pass their own ideological litmus test.
"Today my colleagues are set to reject a nominee that is unblemished in every respect," said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Calling the rejection of Owen an "injustice," Hatch said, "today is a day that we will long regret, on both sides of the aisle."
Hatch said he was informed going in to today's vote that Democrats had decided long before today to reject the judge who has been walloped by criticism from liberal special interest groups, many of whom had helped to kill Pickering's nomination earlier this congressional session.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the committee, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who led Owen's nomination hearing in July, opened the Democratic charge against the judge Thursday by calling her a conservative extremist who worked to place barriers to a woman's right to choose an abortion on numerous cases in Texas.
Leahy said a major problem with Owen was "her extremism even in the conservative region of the Supreme Court of Texas."
He and Owen's critics, led by groups like People for the American Way and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League, centered their attacks on a 1999 opinion Owen wrote against an exemption for a 17-year-old girl who wanted to get an abortion without parental notification.
Her opinion at the time was criticized by Judge Alberto Gonzalez, who served with her on the court and is now White House Counsel. He has since softened his tone, though her critics have used his words more than once to emphasize their arguments against her.
Feinstein said Owen has been led by her ideology, rather than the law, and that the appellate court in New Orleans, for which she has been nominated, would suffer for that.
"Not only does this appellate court represent many people who are poor, many people who are minority, many people who depend on the court for a fair and impartial shake," she said. But the court needs a judge that rules "based on the law, not on the basis of the justice's beliefs."
Hatch reminded the committee that as recently as last year, Owen received the gold standard seal of approval from the American Bar Association, the endorsement of 23 major newspapers and the support of Texas' two Senators.
He balked at charges that Owen had overstepped her judicial boundaries, pointing out that it was the Texas legislature that passed the parental notification law for minors seeking abortions and that she only dissented three times out of 12 in such cases before the Texas court. He said her rejection would have a "chilling effect," not only on conservative female judges, but on the legal and political systems.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he was "angry" with what he saw as the slander of a well-qualified jurist.
"It's hard not to be angry. We're passing some kind of threshold today," he said. "We are going too far."