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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - A Justice for All?

MOYERS: You are looking at a rising star in the conservative sky.

PRYOR: I can think of no higher calling for an American than to serve as a federal judge in the American system of government and to have the responsibility of protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

MOYERS: His name is William Pryor and he's the Attorney General of Alabama. He's 41 years old and President Bush has nominated him for a lifetime appointment to the United States Court of Appeals. If confirmed by the Senate, Pryor will be one the most powerful judges in the country. That prospect delights his supporters.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UTAH: Look, I wish we could find more people like you to be on the federal bench. We'd be a lot better off in this country.

MOYERS: Not so fast, say Pryor's opponents. They see him as a radical — too partisan to be a judge.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: Bill Pryor is a proud and distinguished ideological warrior. I respect that. That's part of America. But I don't believe that ideological warriors, whether from the left or the right, should predominate on the bench. They tend to make law, not interpret law. And that's not what any of us should want from our judges.

MOYERS: Pryor has always freely expressed his beliefs. Those beliefs have made him a darling of the right and Democrats suspect that President Bush nominated him to turn those beliefs into law.

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA: I think the very legitimate issue in question with your nomination is whether you have an agenda.

MOYERS: Senator Charles Schumer of New York laid out the Democrats' case, point by point by point.

On abortion...

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: Mr. Pryor has said he opposes abortion even in the cases of rape or incest, and would limit the right to choose to narrow circumstances where a woman's life is at stake.

MOYERS: On crime and punishment...

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: Attorney General Pryor defended his state's practice of handcuffing prisoners to hitching posts in the hot Alabama sun for seven hours without giving them even a drop of water to drink. And then, when this Supreme Court held the practice violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, he accused the Supreme Court justices of, quote, "applying their own subjective views on appropriate methods of prison discipline."

MOYERS: On limiting the right of women to sue under a federal law called the Violence Against Women Act.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: As Alabama's attorney general, Mr. Pryor filed the only amicus brief from among the 50 states urging the court to undo significant portions of the Violence Against Women Act.

MOYERS: On states rights...

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: At the same time he was conceding that Alabama had failed to fulfill the requirements of a federal consent decree regarding the operation of the state's child welfare system, he was demanding that the state be let out of the deal. Attorney General Pryor said, quote, "My job is to make sure the state of Alabama isn't run by the federal courts. My job isn't to come here and help children." Unquote.

MOYERS: And on that lingering sore from the election of 2000...

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: Bill Pryor was the only state attorney general to file an amicus brief supporting the Supreme Court's intervention in Florida's election dispute during Bush v. Gore. It appears that when the attorney general likes the outcome, he's on the states' rights side. But in this important case, where the Supreme Court overruled the state's position, there he was with federal intervention.

MOYERS: Republicans, for their part, were indignant at how Democrats were reading Pryor's record:

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS, R-AL: The caricature that the attack groups have created of Bill Pryor is just not true. It's false. He is a breath of fresh air.

MOYERS: The chairman of the committee, Orrin Hatch, set out to clear the air:

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: You've been criticized because of litigation regarding the Violence Against Women Act, as though your position on that bill was improper. Now, tell me about that.

WILLIAM PRYOR: Well, my position, Mr. Chairman, was the position adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States in the Morrisson case.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: In other words, you followed not only the law, but you won in the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

PRYOR: The argument I presented was the position adopted by the court, that's right.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: So if anybody's out of the mainstream here, it has to be the Supreme Court, I guess?

PRYOR: Well, I would suggest that the court is within the mainstream.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: I think so too. That's the point I'm trying to make.

MOYERS: But Pryor's critics claim he is far to the right of the American mainstream. Take the question of abortion and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision upholding a woman's right to choose.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: You've said on several occasions that Roe v. Wade is, quote, "the worst abomination of the history of constitutional law." A: Do you believe that as of right now?

WILLIAM PRYOR: I do.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: 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?

PRYOR: Well, obviously if I had the opportunity to be a court of appeals judge, I wouldn't be in the position to do that, Senator Schumer.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: But right now, as a person, would you endorse the court's reversing Roe v. Wade at the first opportunity.

PRYOR: Senator, I don't know what that opportunity would be, and that is a hard thing to speculate about. And unless I know more about what the case involves...

MOYERS: A pro-choice Republican and critical swing vote on the committee — Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania wanted to know more about Pryor's opinion of Roe v. Wade.

SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER, R-PA: Why do you consider it an abomination, Attorney General Pryor?

PRYOR: Well, I believe that not only is the case unsupported by the text and structure of the Constitution, but it has led to a morally wrong result. It has led to the slaughter of millions of innocent unborn children. That's my personal belief.

SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER, R-PA: With that personal belief, Attorney General Pryor, what assurances can you give to the many who are raising the question as to whether, when you characterized it as an abomination and slaughter, that you can follow the decision of the United States Supreme Court, which you consider an abomination and having led to slaughter.

PRYOR: I would invite anyone to look at my record as attorney general, where I've done just that. We had a partial-birth abortion law in our state that was challenged by abortion clinics in Alabama in l997. It could have been interpreted broadly or it could have been interpreted narrowly. I ordered the district attorneys of Alabama to give it its narrowest construction.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: You directed prosecutors to enforce the state partial birth abortion ban only to the extent permitted by the Supreme Court. Is that right?

PRYOR: That was what I was trying to do.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: Even though you had people… even though you had people pushing you to go farther…

PRYOR: Absolutely.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: …to try and expand that law beyond what the Supreme Court had said.

PRYOR: Absolutely.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: So you went along with the Supreme Court, which is the law of the land…

PRYOR: Yes.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: Even though you might have believed otherwise…

PRYOR: Absolutely.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: Even though you did believe otherwise.

MOYERS: But that didn't satisfy Democratic Senator Schumer...

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: How do you square feeling so vehemently… Many people believe abortion is wrong — but when you believe it is murder, how can you square that with, or how can you give comfort to women throughout America, the majority of whom believe in the right to choose, that you can be fair and dispassionate? I don't think it's enough for us to simply hear you say, "I will follow the law." What can you say directly to that woman, not in a legal way, but in a personal way, that might reassure her?

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 versus 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.

MOYERS: And that, Pryor told the Senators, is also what he will do on issues of church and state if his beliefs come in conflict with the law.

Still he makes no apologies for his advocacy of government-sponsored prayer and religious symbols in public life. When he was sworn in as Attorney General in 1997, he said, quote, "With trust in God, and his son, Jesus Christ, we will continue the American experiment of liberty in law."

That same year he spoke at a rally in favor of keeping a monument to the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building. Pryor said, quote, "God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians....to save our country and save our courts."

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-CA: I want to quote something you said, and I quote: "The American experiment is not a theocracy and does not establish an official religion, but the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are rooted in a Christian perspective of the nature of government and the nature of man. The challenge of the next millennium will be to preserve the American experiment by restoring its Christian perspective."

What are others to think of that statement as to how you would maintain something that is important to this plural society, and that is an absolute separation of church and state?

PRYOR: I would invite anyone to look at my record as attorney general, Senator, and see how I have faithfully applied the law in the area of the First Amendment.

MOYERS: Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin wanted further clarification.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN, D-IL: What I'm asking you is, do you not understand that that type of statement in a diverse society like America raises concerns of those who don't happen to be Christian that you are asserting an agenda of your own, a religious belief of your own, inconsistent with separation of church and state, which we have honored since the beginning of this republic?

PRYOR: No, Senator, I think that would be a misunderstanding if someone came away with that impression. It goes to the core of my being that I have a moral obligation that is informed by my religious faith to uphold my oath of office, to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which protects freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression. My record as attorney general has been just that.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: What is your religious affiliation?

PRYOR: I'm a Roman Catholic.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: Are you active in your church?

PRYOR: I am.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: You're a practicing Roman Catholic?

PRYOR: I am.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: You believe in your religion?

PRYOR: I do.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: You worked tirelessly to promote the passage of the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment to the Alabama constitution. And that applies to people of all faiths, doesn't it?

PRYOR: It does, Senator… Chairman.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: And you were advocating for that?

PRYOR: Yes.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: As a committed Catholic.

PRYOR: Yes.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, R-UT: For everybody, regardless of religious belief.

PRYOR: Absolutely.

MOYERS: Senators questioned how Pryor's personal views of homosexuality would influence his legal judgement. In the recent case of Lawrence v. Texas he had filed a brief arguing that the State of Texas should be able to punish private homosexual conduct as a crime. The Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

SENATOR RUSS FEINGOLD, D-WI: In a recent brief to the Supreme Court, you equated private, consensual sexual activity between homosexuals to prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, incest and pedophilia. In light of this record, can you understand why a gay plaintiff or defendant would feel uncomfortable coming before you as a judge? And I'd like to give you this opportunity to explain why these concerns may or may not be justified.

PRYOR: I think my record as attorney general shows that I will uphold and enforce the law.

MOYERS: Democrats challenged Pryor on a wide range of other issues

On his opposition to gun control:

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN, D-IL: Can you explain why you went out of your way to say that a man that's under a restraining order for domestic violence, who had threatened the life of his wife or former wife's boyfriend, should be allowed to carry a gun?

PRYOR: There were some confusing aspects to the federal statute in question that I thought the court ought to look at. The court ended up looking at that and rejected my argument.

MOYERS: On his testimony two years ago about the possibility of error in capital punishment cases:

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY, D-VT: There's been about a dozen since then, about a dozen death row inmates have been exonerated and released. They found they had the wrong person, some within days of their execution time. Do you still think the death penalty system in America is the most accurate criminal sanction in the world?

PRYOR: My judgement is that the system of capital punishment has extraordinary safeguards, many safeguards, to ensure that we review every death sentence to ensure that, number one, we're executing only the guilty; number two, that it's free from discrimination; and number three, that it's in cases of extreme and heinous crimes. There's no question that that system catches errors. That's what the system is supposed to do.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY, D-VT: Do you think that there have been...you think there have never been people executed who were innocent?

PRYOR: If someone has a case that they would like to present to me, I would certainly review it objectively, but I'm not aware of one.

MOYERS: On his rebuke of the Supreme Court for staying the execution of an Alabama death row inmate who was about to be electrocuted. The condemned man had asked the court to consider that the electric chair is a form of "cruel and unusual" punishment:

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA: You actually ridiculed the Supreme Court of the United States by saying: "This issue should not be decided by nine octogenarian lawyers who happen to sit on the Supreme Court."

Do you think that's an appropriate way to refer to the Supreme Court of the United States?

PRYOR: It was probably overheated political rhetoric on my part, Senator.

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA: What was overheated? What were the circumstances that would get you overheated where you'd make that kind of comment about this?

PRYOR: I don't remember the exact context. I'm a political figure, and I know that it was not a statement that I made in any court of law and would not have made in any court of law.

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA: Well, it's entirely improper, is it not?

PRYOR: I think that was overheated.

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA: Well, it's improper. Even overheated or not overheated. It's improper, is it not?

PRYOR: I think it was an inappropriate remark, Senator.

MOYERS: And then there's the issue of capital punishment for convicted criminals considered mentally retarded. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Pryor disagreed with the court's ruling and Alabama went forward with plans to execute a man named Glenn Holladay, said by his attorney to have an IQ of 64. The Supreme Court and more recently the 11th Circuit Court have intervened to stay Holladay's execution.

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA: Do you believe the 11th Circuit was wrong to stay Holladay's…

PRYOR: I haven't really formed a judgment about that. I…because I haven't read in detail that… It was a very recent ruling. I would say, however…

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA Well, that should make it easier for you to remember. You don't remember…

PRYOR: No.

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA …the issue on the execution of a mentally retarded person and your intervention and your characterization?

PRYOR: No, Senator, the question as I understood it was whether I agreed with the ruling or not. I have not read that recent 11th Circuit ruling in detail. I know that we're now going forward…

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA Do you agree with its outcome, it's conclusion?

PRYOR: I don't know. We're going forward with an evidentiary hearing where we're going to determine whether Mr. Holladay is mentally retarded or not and subject to capital punishment or not.

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, D-MA Well, the 11th Circuit…this is amazing that you're effectively ducking that.

MOYERS: Pryor was also challenged about an organization known as RAGA: the Republican Attorneys General Association. The group raises money for candidates running for state attorney general, but until the campaign finance reforms of last year, it could hide which corporations give to which candidates by channeling the funds through the Republican National Committee. Pryor helped found RAGA in 1999 and was its treasurer.

SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WI: A number of Democratic and Republican state attorney generals criticized your organization as unnecessarily partisan, and some have characterized its fundraising practices as fraught with, quote, ethical land mines." Do you think it's appropriate for attorneys general to solicit funds or receive funds from corporations whom they may later have to investigate?

PRYOR: Well, I wasn't receiving, in that instance, a direct contribution, of course, from a corporation. I was receiving it from the Republican National State Elections Committee.

The system that we have in America of elections requires candidates to raise funds to wage campaigns. I have done that, and I have disclosed every donation that my campaign has ever received.

SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WI: All right. Then will you provide to the committee a comprehensive list of RAGA's Contributors and the amounts and dates of their contribution?

PRYOR: I don't have such a list, Senator.

SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WI: Who does? PRYOR: The Republican National Committee.

SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WI: Will you urge them to provide that list?

PRYOR: I would ask you, if you need that kind of list, that you really need to seek it from them. I…

SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WI: I'm asking whether you will help us, as a former treasurer of RAGA, an officer of RAGA, to receive this information, since you just stated that you were in favor of full disclosure.

PRYOR: I'm in favor of the full disclosure according to the letter of the law.

SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WI: You oppose the disclosure of this information?

PRYOR: I'm not saying that I oppose it or I favor it. I support the Republican National Committee making its decisions of what it has to do to follow the law.

SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WI: I'm taking this as a refusal to urge the release of this information.

MOYERS: Nothing Pryor said at the hearing changed the Democrats' opinion that as a judge he would shape the law to fit his ideology. Pryor kept assuring them that he would put aside his personal views once he reached the court.

PRYOR: I urge people to look at my record. My record is one that, whatever my political philosophy might be on the one hand, that when it comes to my record as attorney general and making tough decisions, I strive to follow the law. And I would urge people to show otherwise. I believe that my record shows that I strive to follow the law.

MOYERS: Some Republicans conceded that Pryor had indeed been an ideological and political partisan, but that when it comes to the federal court, the past is not necessarily prologue.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN, R-TX: I believe what your testimony here today and that you view the role as an advocate, your current job as attorney general, far differently from that of a federal judge, and that when you do put your hand on the Bible and take that oath, that you will hang up your boxing gloves, your instruments as an advocate, and you will accept and embrace your new responsibility as a judge and follow the law.

MOYERS: The Democrats weren't buying.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: It's just not enough to say "I will follow the law." And what I worry about… I don't like nominees too far left or too far right, because ideologues tend to want to make law, not do what the founding fathers said judges should do, interpret the law. And in General Pryor's case, his beliefs are so well known, so deeply held that it's very hard to believe, very hard to believe that they're not going to deeply influence the way he comes about saying, "I will follow the law."