Judge Seen as Conservative, Fair

Times Staff Writer

Surely it was no accident that Republicans on Wednesday sent forth Priscilla R. Owen, a soft-spoken Texas Supreme Court justice, to open the Senate’s political brawl over President Bush’s judicial nominees.

The 50-year-old jurist, who also teaches Sunday school, comes across as a mainstream conservative.

She is not known for making provocative speeches -- unlike California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, another Bush nominee. Nor are Owen’s opinions filled with sharp jabs like those of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Instead, she has made her mark by writing or joining scores of legal opinions that have made it harder for consumers and other plaintiffs to sue businesses in Texas.


“She is a thorough and careful judge who works hard and wrestles with every case,” former Texas Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips said Wednesday. He rejected the notion that Owen was a right-wing activist who put politics before the law.

“She is a very good lawyer, and I don’t think it’s easy to typecast her,” said Phillips, who is seen as a moderate.

Texas justices “tend to deal with interpreting statutes, not with big constitutional issues,” he said. “But I never saw her as being on some sort of personal crusade.”

The Texas Supreme Court does not handle criminal cases or death penalty appeals. Its docket is filled with civil disputes, many involving business.

In the 1980s, it was known as a populist, pro-plaintiff court that was friendly to trial lawyers. The justices regularly upheld huge money verdicts against corporations. Business interests set out to replace them with jurists who would favor companies.

Owen, an oil-and-gas lawyer from Houston, was elected in 1994 in the midst of a Republican sweep that brought George W. Bush to the governor’s mansion. Today, the entire court is conservative.

“I’m surprised Priscilla has become a poster child in this dispute,” said former state Justice Craig T. Enoch. “It’s fair to say she is conservative, but it is also true the electorate in this state wanted judges who will carefully follow the law. I had disagreements with her, but even when I thought she was wrong, I thought her position was reasonable. She was respectful of her colleagues. There was no intemperate language or personal attacks.”

Five years ago, the Texas high court was torn over how to interpret a new state abortion law that said parents had to be notified before their daughters had an abortion, except when this notification “may lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse of the minor.” In such instances, a judge could allow the girl to bypass the notification law if she was “mature and sufficiently well-informed” to make the abortion decision on her own.

In a series of “Jane Doe” cases, the Texas justices were split. In one 5-4 decision, the court -- including Phillips -- overruled a judge who had blocked a 17-year-old from getting an abortion without notifying a parent. The majority said the girl had considered the alternatives and had demonstrated maturity.

Owen dissented. She said the high court should have upheld the judge who questioned the girl and decided she was not sufficiently mature to decide on her own. State lawmakers assumed that parents would be notified in all but rare cases, she said.

Then-Justice Alberto R. Gonzales, now the U.S. attorney general, voted with the majority and agreed that the trial judge did not have good evidence for turning down the girl’s request. It “would be an unconscionable act of judicial activism ... to create hurdles that simply are not to be found in the words of the statute,” he wrote.

Although his words were not addressed to Owen or any other individual dissenters, they often were cited as evidence that he meant to call her a “judicial activist.”

Linda S. Eads, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, said Owen had been unfairly tarnished by the dispute.

“I’m pro-choice, and I support the judicial bypass [for minors], but I think the parental abortion decisions have been grossly mischaracterized,” Eads said. “This was a new law, and the legislation had not defined ‘informed consent,’ and the court had to struggle over the standard.”

Owen’s “standard was more strict than some of the others, but it was not shocking,” Eads said. “It was reasonable and judge-like.”

Eads, who said Owen voted Democratic more often than Republican, added: “I read a lot of her opinions, and I disagreed with some of them. But I never read an opinion where I thought she distorted the law. She is conservative, but everyone on that court is conservative.”

There are plenty of pro-business rulings in Owen’s past.

Three years ago, when Owen was first nominated to a U.S. appeals court, the Senate Judiciary Committee -- then controlled by Democrats -- held a daylong hearing and criticized the Texas judge for decisions viewed as friendly to business.

There was the case of Dena Read, a woman who was raped in her home by a Kirby vacuum salesman. The company had not checked his background, which included being fired from a previous job for sex offenses. The woman won a $160,000 jury verdict, and the Texas high court upheld the award on a 6-3 vote.

Owen dissented, arguing that the salesman was an independent contractor. For that reason, Kirby should not be held liable, she said.

All 10 Democrats on the committee voted against her confirmation in 2002, saying she had a record of tilting the law in favor of business. Bush reacted angrily to the defeat. “I don’t appreciate it one bit, and neither do the American people,” he said.

After his reelection, Bush renominated Owen to the U.S. appeals court in New Orleans; the committee, now controlled by Republicans, endorsed her on a party-line, 10-8 vote.

Her confirmation on the Senate floor may depend on whether the Republicans can outlaw filibusters and approve her by majority vote.

Owen, who was born Oct. 4, 1954, in Palacios, Texas, grew up in Waco and earned her undergraduate and law degrees from Baylor University.

She has been active in a small church in Round Rock, near Austin.

Pastor Jeff Black said most of the congregation of 300 did not know Owen was a state supreme court justice until her nomination become a subject of national controversy.

“She is very quiet and conscientious,” said Black, who founded St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Church in 1997. “She teaches Sunday school and is the head of our altar guild. Our people thought she was a nice, single lady who loves children, probably the most unlikely person to be the center of controversy.”

When Owen was scheduled to go to Washington for her confirmation hearing, the pastor called her to the front of the church.

“We had her come up and we prayed for her,” he said. “And that’s how it has been since then. When anyone asks what we can do for her, she says, ‘Let’s just pray that God’s will will be done,’ ” he said.