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Hardly hearings

Judiciary | Senate considers a Bush nominee, but she may be from the wrong state

Issue: "John Smoltz: The closer," Aug. 3, 2002

Priscilla Owen, President Bush's nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, arrived dressed in black-as if a judge's robe was required, but she left it at home.

After 440 days of waiting, she could be excused if she forgot where it was. Last week, she finally earned a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a rare honor for Bush nominees. The Senate has confirmed only 11 of 32 appeals-court nominees so far this Congress (or 34 percent), compared to 86 percent in President Clinton's first two years.

In her soft-spoken Texas accent, Ms. Owen-who currently serves on the Texas Supreme Court-promised senators, "I will do my utmost to apply the statutes you have written as you have written them."

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But statutes may be less important than states for Senate Democrats.

The Senate committee rejected District Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi, a state with two Republican senators, including minority leader Trent Lott. But it approved Judge Edith Brown Clement of Louisiana, a state with two Democratic senators. Now they're poised to embarrass Ms. Owen, a nominee from the president's home state, Texas, which has two Republican senators.

Abortion is usually the primary reason for holding up Bush nominees. Committee chairman Patrick Leahy tagged Ms. Owen "out of the mainstream" for voting in nine of 12 cases to order parental notifications before teenagers could have abortions. Texas has a parental-notification statute that gives teens the right to ask the courts for an exception.

But while the White House has defended Justice Owen's decisions as an example of judicial restraint, they don't make the political point that parental notification is hardly "out of the mainstream," but supported by 75 or 80 percent in most polls. When asked about the polls by WORLD, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer would only say "it would indeed be unfortunate if litmus tests were imposed by the party that receives the president's nominees, in this case the Democratic Party."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the judiciary committee's ranking Republican, put his colleagues on notice that the committee has never rejected a nominee who is unanimously rated as "well-qualified" by the liberal American Bar Association. If they do, it's a sure sign that qualifications are out, and only ideology is in, as the test of a judicial nominee.

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