A Third Judicial Nominee Is Confirmed by the Senate
The Senate voted Thursday to confirm the nomination of former Alabama Atty. Gen. William H. Pryor Jr. to the federal appeals court in Atlanta, handing President Bush a trifecta of controversial judicial confirmations in advance of an expected Supreme Court vacancy.
Pryor, an outspoken opponent of abortion and champion of conservative causes, was confirmed by a vote of 53 to 45, mostly along party lines.
“This is progress for the United States Senate. This is progress for the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Pryor is the third conservative judicial nominee to benefit from a pact between 14 moderate senators, seven from each party, that ended a Democratic filibuster of their confirmations. The others were Texas jurist Priscilla R. Owen, who was confirmed last month to a seat on the appellate court in New Orleans, and California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, who was confirmed Wednesday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Three moderate Republicans -- Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine -- broke ranks to oppose Pryor, and two centrist Democrats -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Ken Salazar of Colorado -- supported his confirmation.
Both California senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted against his confirmation.
The three new judges were among 10 nominees blocked during Bush’s first term by Democrats, who said the jurists held extremist views. Bush renominated seven of the 10 this year, and Democrats had threatened to again block confirmation votes.
In return for ending the three filibusters, Democrats won a promise from Republicans to retain the right of the minority party to use the maneuver to stall future nominees. Democrats considered it important to retain that right with the expectation that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has thyroid cancer, may retire shortly.
Republicans disputed that assessment, saying they would change the filibuster rules if Democrats attempted to use them to block a Supreme Court nominee. But for now, Frist said, the issue has been put on the sidelines.
Still, the question of what comes next in the conflict between Democrats and Republicans over the federal judiciary was clearly on the minds of senators as they voted.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, described the confirmation of the three judges as “bitter medicine.”
Republicans wonder whether Democrats will filibuster two appellate court nominees excluded from the moderates’ agreement: William G. Myers III, a pro-ranching Idaho lawyer nominated to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and Henry W. Saad, a Michigan judge nominated to the 6th Circuit bench in Cincinnati. The Senate Judiciary Committee has moved Myers’ nomination out of committee, but Frist has not indicated whether he will bring it to the Senate floor for a vote.
Also unknown is how the moderates will gauge the nominations of Terrence W. Boyle to the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., and Brett Kavanaugh to the District of Columbia appellate court. Both are still before the Judiciary Committee.
Boyle, a former aide to then-Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, has been a U.S. District Court judge in that state since 1984. Democrats describe him as hostile to civil rights and federal regulation.
Kavanaugh was an associate counsel on the staff of Kenneth W. Starr, the special counsel who investigated President Clinton. More recently, he served as deputy to then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, and Democrats consider him too close politically to the president to be a dispassionate judge.
The seven Democrats who signed the moderates’ agreement pledged to filibuster only in “extraordinary circumstances,” and it remains unclear whether they would consider Boyle’s or Kavanaugh’s nominations as reaching that standard.
Pryor, 43, may be best known on the national stage for his role in the controversy over a display of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. As the state’s attorney general, Pryor supported Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s right to display the monument. But after Moore defied a federal court order to remove it, Pryor enforced the order and prosecuted the jurist for ethics violations, leading to his removal from the bench.
As a result, Pryor earned the enmity of liberal groups, which criticized his support for the display, and of conservative groups, which complained that he enforced a court order they opposed.
In February 2004, as the furor over judicial nominations grew, Bush used a congressional recess to appoint Pryor to the 5th Circuit, where he has served on an interim basis. That temporary appointment, which Democrats called illegal and provocative, was set to expire at the end of this year.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Pryor’s service on the court proved that he was up to the job.
“During the course of Judge Pryor’s tenure on the Court of Appeals, he has handed down quite a number of opinions which show, I think, maturity, and which show growth and which undercut many of the objections of his critics,” Specter said.
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., a civil rights advocacy group, described Pryor as a dedicated jurist who believes in a narrow view of federal power.
“To me it is so anomalous that someone from Alabama could turn a blind eye to the role that the federal courts have played in this state,” Cohen said.
After the vote on Pryor, the Senate voted unanimously to confirm David McKeague and Richard Griffin to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Both nominations had been blocked by Democrats in retaliation for the Republicans’ refusal during the 1990s to consider some of Clinton’s nominees to the same court.