May 25, 2005
WASHINGTON - The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Priscilla Owen as a federal appellate judge, ending the four-year ordeal of the Texas jurist who was thrust into the center of the partisan battle over President Bush's judicial nominations.
The 56-43 vote to appoint Owen to the New Orlean-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a consequence of an agreement reached earlier this week that averted, for the time being, a bitter dispute over Democratic use of the filibuster to block Bush's judicial choices.
Bush, pleased with the vote on a nominee he said would bring "a wealth of experience and expertise" to the bench, said it should be followed by others. "I urge the Senate to build on this progress and provide my judicial nominees the up-or-down votes they deserve," the president said in a statement.
Owen, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., "withstood an orchestrated partisan attack on her record."
Democrats had used their filibuster powers four times in the past to prevent a vote on Owen, who they said was too conservative for the lifetime position. On Tuesday, following the filibuster agreement, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to end the stalemate and bring the nomination to a vote.
"A supremely qualified nominee received the up-or-down vote she deserved," said fellow Texan Sen. John Cornyn. The vote, the Republican senator said, was "something we could have done four years ago."
Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice since 1994, was one of 10 circuit court judge nominees thwarted by Democrats during Bush's first term by filibuster tactics that emerged as a topic in last year's election and a priority issue for GOP-allied conservative groups. She was nominated early in Bush's first term.
Frist, after several years of warnings, this week threatened to impose new rules on the Senate to disallow the use of the filibuster on judicial nominations,. Democrats in turn threatened to disrupt the work of the Senate if they lost their right to keep talking unless 60 members voted to end debate.
On Monday seven Republicans and seven Democrats helped prevent that meltdown with an agreement under which the minority's right to filibuster was retained but Democrats said they would use that right only in "extraordinary circumstances."
The compromise also opened the way for votes on other long-stalled nominees, including William Pryor Jr. for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and Janice Rogers Brown for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Senate leaders also announced Tuesday that they had agreed to take up the long-pending nominations of three Michigan judges.
Frist characterized the Texas Supreme Court justice as "a gentle woman, an accomplished lawyer, and a brilliant jurist" who was "unconscionably denied an up-or-down vote" for four years.
The GOP leader also expressed regret that the deal had sidetracked his attempt to permanently bar the minority from using the filibuster to block judicial nominations.
Use of procedural delaying tactics to stop nominations was "a new and dangerous course" and "a power grab of unprecedented proportions," he said.
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the Senate should put the filibuster dispute behind it and get back to work on other issues. "We should just move on," he said. "It's over with."
It wasn't easy for Owen, 50, to get to this point. She was subjected to nine hours of hearings, answered more than 500 questions and endured 22 days of floor debate.
With Owen, confirmed, Frist also planned to begin debate Wednesday on the nomination of John R. Bolton to be U.N. ambassador. Bolton, the outspoken conservative who has been accused of bullying subordinates and discounting intelligence data that contradicted his ideology, seemed likely to be confirmed by week's end.
Owen on Tuesday visited the White House, where she told the president she would remember "that you expect judges to follow the law."
"She is my friend, and more importantly, she's a great judge," Bush said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the filibuster issue questioned whether the compromise would hold.
"This is merely a truce, it is not a treaty yet," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, an advocate of restricting judicial filibusters. "An awful lot depends on good faith."
Several Republican signers said the deal would survive only if Democrats abided by that vague condition. "The fact that you are a conservative is no longer an extraordinary circumstance," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, described Owen as an "exceptional jurist who is committed to the Constitution" and was widely admired across the state.
But Reid said he was voting against her because of her "extreme ideological approach to the law." He said she consistently ruled in favor of big business and corporate interests and against consumers and workers.
Owen was born in 1954 in Palacios, Texas, a small fishing and agriculture community on the Gulf Coast. Her father died of polio shortly before her first birthday.
She earned a law degree from Baylor University in 1977, finishing at the top of her class and scoring highest among those taking the bar before entering private practice in Houston.
She easily won election to the Texas Supreme Court in 1994 and re-election in 2000.