Senate Votes to Confirm Judicial Nominee Priscilla Owen
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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: With me this afternoon are my first 11 judicial nominees.
KWAME HOLMAN: When President Bush nominated Priscilla Owen to the fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four years ago, it was the start of a long rocky road to confirmation.
SEN. PAT LEAHY: Justice Owen is the third nominee to the vacancy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Owen testified for a total of nine hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee and answered more than 500 questions.
SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE: Motion is not agreed to.
KWAME HOLMAN: The full Senate spent 22 days debating her qualifications. Democrats managed to block confirmation four different times. However, this week, a Senate compromise on the president’s disputed judicial choices cleared the way for today’s final, simple majority vote on Owen’s nomination.
SENATOR: Clerk will call the roll.
KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison is a long- time friend of Owen’s.
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Priscilla Owen, I have to say was the perfect person to be first in line to break a bad period in the United States Senate history because she is a person of impeccable credentials.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Here on the floor of the United States Senate –
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, as the Senate headed toward confirming Owen, New York’s Chuck Schumer reiterated why most Democrats still adamantly oppose advancing the Texas Supreme Court judge.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: There is no question that Justice Owen attended fine schools and clearly is a very bright woman, but there’s also no question that she is immoderate, she is a judicial activist, and she puts her own views ahead of the law’s views.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, Owen’s four-year wait ended just after noon today.
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI: The yays are 56; the nays, 43. The nomination is confirmed.
KWAME HOLMAN: While many Republicans hailed the vote on Owen as a great achievement and long overdue, several expressed mixed feelings about the compromise reached by 14 Republican and Democratic senators that allowed the Owen vote to go forward. John Cornyn of Texas:
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Eighty-six senators did not participate in this agreement, so we don’t know exactly what it means any more than the rest of you who read it like we do, wondering exactly what that standard is.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats who signed on to the agreement said they would use the filibuster against judicial nominees only in “extraordinary circumstances.” Republicans, in turn, agreed not to outlaw the filibuster of judges.
The deal prevented a threatened slowdown of Senate business by the Democrats. But Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was not a party to the agreement, made it clear again today that the nuclear or constitutional option still is viable.
SEN. BILL FRIST: If filibusters again erupt under circumstances other than extraordinary, we will put the constitutional option back on the table, and we’ll implement it.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, Democratic Leader Harry Reid again asserted that it was time to move on.
SEN. HARRY REID: Let’s not talk about nuclear option anymore. Let’s let the Senate work its will. Let’s get over this.
KWAME HOLMAN: With Priscilla Owen confirmed, Majority Leader Frist plans to move on two other stalled nominees, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor. But the fates of Appeals Court candidates William Myers and Henry Saud, left out of the bipartisan compromise, remain unclear.
GWEN IFILL: The Senate deal that cleared the way for votes on some but not all of the president’s nominees has its critics on either end of the ideological spectrum. And for them, the fight is not over. We’re joined by the heads of two of the most active groups. Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council and Nan Aron is founder and president of the Alliance for Justice. Welcome to you both.
Tony Perkins, you worked a lot, raised a lot of money in order to get the president’s judicial nominees confirmed. Were you happy with this deal?
TONY PERKINS: No, we’re not happy. We’re disappointed that what has happened here are 14 senators — seven Republicans, seven Democrats — have decided what the standards will be. And I think the Senate Majority Leader was on a clear path to resolve this issue once and for all.
This did not bring any resolution. What we have here is a handful deciding to stay in the land of political indecision. This will be back up when we come to the Supreme Court. There’s no doubt about it.
GWEN IFILL: Nan Aron, were you happy with the deal?
NAN ARON: Partly yes, partly no. Like all compromises, there’s something good, and something not so good. It’s certainly a bright day for the Senate because filibusters are now preserved for the future, checks and balances are preserved, and I think most importantly, there’s very strong language requiring, really, President Bush to consult, just as President Clinton did, with members of the other party before he sends up a nominee.
But, on the other hand, there’s a dark side, and that is the dark side for some of these circuit courts because some of the nominees — we just saw with Priscilla Owen today — are moving closer to confirmation. Of course she was confirmed, but now we’ve got William Pryor, Janice Rogers Brown, who have moved a step closer, and we at the Alliance for Justice will do everything we possibly can to prevent their confirmations.
GWEN IFILL: What would you say are the consequences for the courts?
TONY PERKINS: Well, I think, actually Nan pointed out the silver lining for us is that under these terms, the acceptable candidates are Owen, Pryor, and Brown, who have been intently targeted for their, as Charles Schumer said, deeply held personal beliefs. They now fall within the boundaries.
We expect that other candidates that have the same judicial philosophy and qualifications will not be filibustered. If they are, we expect these seven Republicans — in particular, Sen. (Mike) DeWine from Ohio, and Sen. (Lindsay) Graham from South Carolina — to lead the way in helping the majority leader use the constitutional option.
GWEN IFILL: Can I leave it right there, because you just mentioned two of the senators who signed on to the Gang of 14 Agreement. You’ve also said that there would be repercussions for those senators. What did you mean by that?
TONY PERKINS: Well, I think clearly you have a president that was reelected on two issues in terms of the motivation of the values voters. You had the issue of marriage, which the president was out front on, and the issue of the Supreme Court, with possible vacancies on the Supreme Court, and his pledge to put strict constructionists, conservative judges who on the court who will not be activists –.
GWEN IFILL: And repercussions means?
TONY PERKINS: Well, I think they’re out of step with their constituents, and I think there’s great political risk to a couple those involved in this Gang of 14. That’s up to the voters in their state.
GWEN IFILL: Are there repercussions for Democrats?
NAN ARON: I disagree. I think that what’s best for the country is certainly people’s nominees who are in the mainstream, people who don’t have political agendas, but nominees who are willing to hear the facts of the case, apply the law, and make a decision based on the merits. That’s not what Tony Perkins wants. And I think what’s best is if we can all step back, but most particularly, the President of the United States, and look and see what was done.
Look at the discussions, deliberations, and basically do what past presidents have always done, and that is confer with members of his party, Democratic Party, and then try to find consensus candidates. You know, when Clinton did that, both his Supreme Court nominees, Breyer and Ginsburg, sailed through confirmation. This president’s nominees could do the same.
GWEN IFILL: Lets take a step back, both of you, because you’re sitting at home and watching this debate, and you’re thinking Washington activists arguing with one another again. Explain why should this matter to the average voter who has not been that engaged, according to the polls, in the story.
TONY PERKINS: Well, if you look at the roles of courts have assumed in our society, and that is what is at issue here, is the activist role of courts where judges have been creating public policy by legislating from the bench. That is a role that’s reserved for the legislative branch.
We’re simply saying we should have judges that abide by the Constitution and interpret the law according to that. And 14 senators do not trump the Constitution. The role of the Senate is to provide advice and consent, not rewrite it and consult with the president; it’s advice and consent.
NAN ARON: People ought to care passionately about who becomes a judge, because judges make decisions every day that affect our everyday lives, from the water we drink to the air we breathe, to whether we have privacy in our homes, whether our workplaces are safe. Everything this country really comes down to a decision made by a federal judge, and, therefore, it’s incumbent upon all of us to pay attention to the kind of people who are being put up for these positions.
GWEN IFILL: If that’s true, you have argued that both, well, Priscilla Owen, who was confirmed today, and the other two, who have agreed to as part of this agreement, are way out of mainstream, according to your definition –
NAN ARON: Right.
GWEN IFILL: If the bar has been lowered to allow them confirmation, what’s to say that you don’t think any other judge who comes down out of the White House who’s a president’s nominee isn’t somebody worth filibustering under extraordinary circumstances?
NAN ARON: That’s a great question, but I think these three nominees were given over to the Republicans by the Democrats as part of the agreement. But I do believe, and statements that I’ve heard from senators subsequent to the agreement, indicate that going forward if nominees have records like Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown, or William Pryor, that they could and would be filibustered by the Democrats.
GWEN IFILL: Does that open the whole ball of wax all over again?
TONY PERKINS: According to Lindsay Graham, who authored the certain sentence of the agreement regarding when the Republicans would be held to their agreement –
GWEN IFILL: The senator from South Carolina.
TONY PERKINS: — he says that the criteria by which these three are approved applies to others. So that may be the triggering point. But Nan’s point is absolutely correct. These federal judges decide all of these issues, and they shouldn’t. It should be reserved for elected representatives of the people. That’s what’s at stake.
GWEN IFILL: To hear you guys talk it sound like this whole thing’s going to fall apart at the next pressure point, say the Supreme Court. Are you gearing up already for a Supreme Court vacancy?
NAN ARON: Yes, because it’s expected that there could well be one, if not more, vacancies announced at the end of June, and those people who will sit on the Supreme Court will make decisions that will affect our lives, not just for the next three years but for the next 40 years. These will — this will be a fight if this president puts someone up, like a (Antonin) Scalia, (Clarence) Thomas or a Janice Rogers Brown; this will be fights that will shape our lives for decades to come.
GWEN IFILL: So this deal goes away almost immediately, Tony Perkins?
TONY PERKINS: This is simply kicking the can down the road a little bit. I think they have chosen not to deal with it today. They will deal with it tomorrow. Nan is absolutely correct when she gives an assessment of the situation. There’s a lot riding on the outcome of this, depending upon your perspective, how you want it to go.
We simply want courts that operate within the realm of the Constitution, and not creating public policy, and I do think we will be at this point when a nomination is made to the Supreme Court where the constitutional option will be back on the table.
NAN ARON: But I do think it’s important to note that it certainly was the intention of these 14 senators to set out rules that will govern the next two years of judicial nominations, and I think it was certainly their intention to put the nuclear option off the table, not just for the next couple weeks, but for the remainder of this Congress, the next two years.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think that’s what happened?
NAN ARON: I certainly hope so, but, you know, it remains to be seen.
GWEN IFILL: Is there room, given the conversation we’re having here, what we’ve seen, despite all the talk of optimism among the Gang of 14 the other night, is there room for moderation in Congress? Is there really room for a group of people, somewhere in the center — not all centrists, necessarily — to come up with a solution that sticks? And is that even desirable?
TONY PERKINS: Well, I mean, I’ve been in the legislative process. It is give and take. It depends on how much you’re going to give and how much you’re going to take. I don’t know, because the stakes are so high on this issue, that there is going to be a lot of give and take from both sides.
GWEN IFILL: What do you think, Nan?
NAN ARON: My sense is that if both sides can sit down and work with the White House and produce candidates that could be agreed upon by both the Democrats and Republicans, that I think an agreement could be forged, and I think President Bush could see his nominees encounter smooth sailing.
But I think it’s going to take a White House that’s committed, committed to engaging in meaningful consultation with senators on the other side. And, you know, this isn’t so unprecedented. Previous presidents have always done this. It’s this particular president who has decided not to do this. And we’re hoping that this agreement puts a little bit more pressure on him to do so.
TONY PERKINS: It’s important to note that these candidates have a majority support: Priscilla Owen today 56 votes, 58 votes, 56, 58, votes, more than the 51 needed. All of these nominees that have been put forth, if they had up-or-down votes on the floor of the United States Senate would be confirmed. That’s all that’s being asked for is fairness of up-or-down votes on the floor of the United States Senate, if they go through the committee process.
GWEN IFILL: I feel I gave him the first word; I’ve got to give you the last.
NAN ARON: The Senate is the last line of defense to George Bush basically putting people on the bench who will be hostile to individual rights. We hope he doesn’t nominate someone like that, but if he does, it’s incumbent upon the Senate to stand up and say no.
GWEN IFILL: Nan Aron, Tony Perkins, thank you both very much.