Cover Story

Pryor commitment

Anti-Bush senators in Washington continue to block the president's picks for U.S. appeals courts-arguing that the nominees will substitute their "deeply held views" for the law. Nominee WILLIAM PRYOR insisted that adherence to law always trumps personal views. He had the chance on the Ten Commandments issue to walk the talk. He did. And it may have cost him his career

Issue: "Pryor commitment," Sept. 13, 2003

In the parking lot outside Alabama's whitewashed government complex, space number 237 is empty. "Reserved for Moore" reads the red lettering against a white background, but Roy Moore isn't at work today-and he may not be back for quite a while. Nearby, the attorney general's parking space is occupied, though the "reserved" sign has been removed, presumably for security reasons. When you're known as an enemy of the Ten Commandments in Alabama, you don't want to advertise.

Many Alabamians would love to see the parking situation reversed. They want their beloved Chief Justice Moore, the man who stood up to federal judicial tyranny, back on the bench. And William Pryor, the attorney general who helped force Mr. Moore into an unpaid leave? They want to see him sent packing.

That's unfamiliar territory for Mr. Pryor, who was just 34 when first elected attorney general-the youngest in the nation. Last year, Alabamians sent him back to Montgomery with 59 percent of the vote, and earlier this year President Bush nominated him for a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. At 41, there seemed to be no limit to Mr. Pryor's career trajectory.

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But then he ran into Roy's Rock. When a federal judge ordered the 2-1/2-ton monument to the Ten Commandments removed, Mr. Pryor had the unenviable job of enforcing the court order.

Maybe Judge Moore didn't think he would do it. After all, the two men got along well enough in social situations, they were both members of the Republican Party, and they were both deeply conservative and deeply religious. But just weeks before, in a fractious nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Pryor had insisted that he would not be a judicial activist: "I have a record as attorney general that is separate from my personal beliefs, and I have demonstrated as attorney general that I'm able to set aside my personal beliefs and follow the law, even when I strongly disagree with the law."

Democrats on the panel were skeptical, and only a forced vote along party lines got the nomination out of committee, where it immediately ran smack into a partisan filibuster. Meanwhile, back in Alabama, Mr. Pryor got the chance to prove he meant what he said. Although he kept a personal copy of the Ten Commandments on his own office wall-though he believed that Judge Moore was right and the federal courts were wrong-he ordered the granite monument removed from public view in accordance with the judge's ruling. Not even the pleas and prayers of his own supporters could dissuade him. On Aug. 27, after a brief but tense standoff, workers carted away the monument-and possibly Mr. Pryor's political career, as well.

Religious conservatives who once hailed Mr. Pryor as a hero turned on him. More than 100 monument supporters left their vigil at the judicial building to stand under Mr. Pryor's window chanting "Resign now! Resign now!" Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council accused Mr. Pryor of "moral cowardice," and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes said the attorney general was "unfit to be on the bench."

"The New York Times, The Washington Post, the ACLU-I expect them to criticize me," Mr. Pryor says, rolling his eyes. "I'd be worried if they didn't." But criticism from his friends is harder to take. What hurt him most came from "a Christian leader that I greatly respect," comparing him to an earlier Alabama attorney general who failed to defend Rosa Parks in her quiet act of civil disobedience.

"That wasn't fair," he says. "It wasn't right." His voice trails away and he looks at the floor, clearly uncomfortable talking about his feelings. But he can't let the Rosa Parks comparison slip by unchallenged. He doesn't want to talk about his personal ordeal, but civil disobedience is a principle, and he has to make his position clear.

"[Martin Luther] King argued persuasively that because blacks in the South did not have real recourse through the political and legal system, their only recourse was to engage in civil disobedience. There was no right of equal access. They were denied the right to vote, even the right to assemble and speak freely. White people didn't face that then, and we certainly don't face it in this situation."

Not that Mr. Pryor rejects civil disobedience completely, though he is Alabama's top enforcer of the law. "As a Christian, I think we're all supposed to submit to governing authorities," he says, rattling off three biblical passages-from Matthew to 1 Peter-that illustrate his point. "At the same time, I do have a perspective that you have to disobey government when it flatly contradicts your moral obligations. But those are extreme circumstances, such as being ordered to worship a graven image. If you were being ordered to do that as an individual, you would be bound to disobey."

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