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Bench Battle: William Pryor

July 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy insist they are good friends and have remained so even as the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee has bounced back and forth between them in recent years.

SPOKESMAN: You’re the one that raised it!

SPOKESMAN: I raised it because…

KWAME HOLMAN: That friendship was tested this morning as Leahy tried to use committee rules to prevent a vote on the nomination of Alabama state attorney general William Pryor to the 11th Circuit Court of appeals in Atlanta.

SPOKESMAN: I’m objecting to having a vote at this time under rule four. I would ask for a vote on my objection.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, I will overrule the objection, and the vote will be on whether the ruling of the chair overruling the objection should be sustained. The clerk will call the roll.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I want to vote pursuant to rule four.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I don’t care what you want, that’s the way it’s going to be.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Okay, you’re not going to follow the rules then.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I’m going to follow the rule. I overruled your objection, and the vote will be on whether the chair should be sustained.

KWAME HOLMAN: Leahy had wanted more time to finish an investigation into a recently released report about Pryor’s fund-raising activities as a member of a Republican attorneys general group, but hatch objected to yet another delay.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: This is the fifth time we have delayed this vote. It is unseemly that we have to keep delaying and delaying this vote. All we want is a vote up and down.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: You can force a vote if you want, but you do so in violation of the rules.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, then I’m going to force a vote then.

KWAME HOLMAN: Initial concerns over Pryor’s nomination focused on statements he has made concerning the Supreme Court’s 1973 “Roe V. Wade” decision, establishing a woman’s right to abortion. New York’s Charles Schumer questioned Pryor during his confirmation hearing last month.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Now, you’ve said on occasion, on several occasions, that “Roe V. Wade” is “the worst abomination of the history of constitutional law.” A, do you believe that as of right now?

WILLIAM PRYOR: I do.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Okay. I appreciate your candor, I really do. And second, would you endorse the court’s reversing “Roe V. Wade” at the first opportunity, just as you argued for the court to constrict the Violence Against Women Act, and you got five justices to agree with you?

WILLIAM PRYOR: Well, obviously… ( chuckles )… if I had the opportunity to be a court of appeals judge, I wouldn’t be in the position to do that, senator Schumer.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: But please, what can you say? I mean, you feel this so passionately and you’ve said repeatedly abortion is murder. What can you say today that will give comfort to a woman who might come before you trying to control the destiny of her body, trying to exercise her fundamental rights? Wouldn’t it be logical that she would be concerned that you would be looking for a way “within the confines of the law”– because everyone looks that way; no judge will admit they’re going outside the law– to deny her that right to choose?

WILLIAM PRYOR: I would say that that woman should be comforted by looking at my record as attorney general, by looking at the fact that though I have vehemently disagreed with “Roe V. Wade” on the one hand, as attorney general, where I have had a constitutional duty to uphold and enforce the law on the other hand, I have done my duty. And in the context specifically of when the Alabama partial birth abortion law was challenged, that law could have been interpreted in at least a couple of different ways. I looked at the precedents of the Supreme Court in “Roe” and in “Casey” and gave the narrowest construction available to that law and ordered the district attorneys of Alabama to enforce it only in that narrowest construction.

KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions said Pryor’s views on abortion simply are consistent with his views as a practicing Roman Catholic.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: The doctrine that abortion is not justified for rape and incest is catholic doctrine. It is the position of the pope and it is the position of the Catholic Church in unity. So are we saying that if you believe in that principle, you can’t be a federal judge? Is that what we’re saying? And are we not saying then good Catholics need not apply?

KWAME HOLMAN: That statement ignited even more passions. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin:

SEN. DICK DURBIN: As a Catholic I sit here and resent what I’m hearing. People who are and are not Catholics are speaking for a religion they do not belong to. There are many Catholics who see this nomination much differently than those who support Mr. Pryor. I believe that his position should be addressed on the merits, and I would hope that you would instruct members of this committee to expunge references to religion from this point forward. This is beneath the dignity of this committee.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I would just say it this way. Yes, we have a prohibition on a religious test for this body, and I don’t think any member on either side would be prejudiced against a person because of the faith that they have. But what if their personal views are consistent with that faith? What if their personal views are sincerely to the fact that abortion is morally wrong and it’s the taking of innocent life, need they not apply?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: I deeply resent this new line of attack from the right wing that anyone who opposes William Pryor is guilty of discrimination against him because he is a Catholic.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee approved William Pryor’s nomination, with all ten Republicans voting for and all nine Democrats voting against. Democrats still could block the nomination through a filibuster, preventing the full Senate from voting on it just as they have with the circuit court nominations of Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen.