Alabama Atty. Gen. William H. Pryor, President Bush's nominee for a U.S. appeals court seat in Atlanta, won a 10-9 recommendation from a bitterly divided Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday -- but not before lawmakers exchanged angry words over charges of religious bigotry.
The party-line vote sends Pryor's nomination to the Senate floor, but his confirmation remains in doubt.
Democrats have filibustered against two of Bush's nominees; for liberals, Pryor's nomination may be even more controversial. They say he is a hard-charging conservative activist who, at 41, is ill-suited to become a life-tenured judge.
Pryor does not entirely dispute the first part of that characterization. In June, he told the committee that as an elected attorney general, his job was to be a zealous advocate for the views of Alabama residents.
Being a judge is different, Pryor said, and he would set aside his personal views and follow the law.
He also has been outspoken in voicing his contempt for some Supreme Court rulings. He described the Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized abortion as "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history."
Shortly after Bush's election, Pryor concluded a speech to the conservative Federalist Society by offering a "prayer for the new administration: Please, God, no more Souters." Among many conservatives, the first President Bush's appointment of David H. Souter to the Supreme Court is seen as a disaster, because as a justice, Souter has proved to be moderate to liberal on most issues.
When Alabama faced a legal challenge to its continued use of the electric chair for executions, Pryor said the issue "should not be decided by nine octogenarian lawyers who happen to sit on the Supreme Court."
The dispute over Pryor's nomination escalated over the last two weeks.
Democrats learned that he had initiated a fund-raising drive by the Republican Attorney Generals Assn. that solicited money from the tobacco and gun industries, which were being sued by states. His critics said the fund-raising presented an ethical conflict.
Last week, Pryor's supporters ran newspaper ads in Maine and Rhode Island that showed a courthouse door and included the words: "Catholics need not apply."
The ads were sponsored by the Committee for Justice, a group founded by former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray to support Bush's besieged judicial nominees.
"Some in the U.S. Senate are attacking Bill Pryor for having 'deeply held' Catholic beliefs to prevent him from becoming a federal judge," the ads said.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said Wednesday in a statement endorsing Pryor that he is being subjected to a religious litmus test.
"While I, the people of Alabama and especially Alabamans who know him best agree that Gen. Pryor is an excellent, well-qualified nominee, the radical left and its Beltway sympathizers believe he has already disqualified himself," Hatch said. "Why? Because the left is trying to enforce an anti-religious litmus test. It appears that nominees who openly adhere to Catholic and Baptist doctrines, as a matter of personal faith, are unqualified for the federal bench in the eyes of the liberal Washington interest groups. Period. No exceptions for Carolyn Kuhl or Leon Holmes, and certainly not for Gen. Pryor."
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl, Bush's nominee to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, also won a 10-9 recommendation from the committee, but her nomination has not come to the floor for a vote. Her critics have cited her record as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration, when she urged an effort to have the Supreme Court overrule Roe vs. Wade.
J. Leon Holmes, the former president of Arkansas Right to Life, was chosen by Bush to be a district judge. He also won a 10-9 recommendation from the committee, despite some controversial statements in his past. He had written that the proper role for women in marriage is the biblical one in which a "wife is subordinate to her husband," which "places her under the authority of the man."
Hatch said Wednesday that it is wrong to block court nominees based on such personal beliefs. "The litmus test, whether you call it an abortion litmus test or a religious litmus test, is being applied with full force against Gen. Pryor because of his faith and the personal views consistent with it," the senator said.
Committee Democrats protested that religion had been dragged into the dispute.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont called it "despicable" and a "slander" to say the Democrats' opposition to Pryor "is being motivated by religious bigotry. This smear is a lie, and it depends on the silence of others to survive."
When it came time to vote, all 10 Republicans voted for Pryor and all nine Democrats opposed him. However, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he was not certain he would vote to confirm Pryor in the full Senate.
The injection of religion into the dispute surprised some advocates.
Ralph G. Neas, president of the People for the American Way, a liberal group that has led the opposition, took strong exception to the GOP's claims of a "religious bias" against Pryor.
"Objections to Bill Pryor's confirmation are broad and deep and grounded in his legal philosophy and his record as a public official. It is irresponsible and divisive of Sen. Hatch ... or anyone else to try to mischaracterize that opposition as grounded in religious bigotry. This is demagoguery at its worst," Neas said.
The two Bush nominees who have been blocked by Democratic filibusters are Miguel Estrada, a Washington lawyer nominated to the District of Columbia appellate court, and Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla R. Owen, a nominee for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.