Naked City

Texans vs. Priscilla Owen

If the Bush administration's renomination of former Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit -- currently derailed by a U.S. Senate filibuster -- eventually goes down for good, much of the credit will be due to a grassroots coalition of Texas groups. Calling themselves the Texas Ad Hoc Coalition on Judicial Nominees, the group formed last year and conducted an effective and persistent campaign to make sure senators are fully aware of Owen's anti-consumer, anti-worker, and anti-women's rights record. "In her seven years on the Supreme Court," the coalition wrote to Sen. Patrick Leahy, then chair of the Judiciary Committee, "Justice Owen has proven herself to be a conservative whose opinions not only stray well beyond the American mainstream but even run far to the right of the conservative majority of her own court." Last year the committee rejected Owen's nomination -- normally a dead end -- but following the November election, President Bush decided to defy precedent and renominate Owen to the now-GOP-controlled committee.

The groups opposing Owen include Texans for Public Justice, the American Association of University Women of Texas, the Gray Panthers, the National Council of Jewish Women of Texas, Texas NOW, numerous chapters of Planned Parenthood, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, TARAL, the state AFL-CIO, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the state NAACP, Texas Watch, and the Women's Health and Family Planning Association, joined more recently by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Texas Freedom Network, and other groups. Since the GOP takeover of the Senate, representatives of the groups have visited Capitol Hill several times to talk to senators and their staffs and have maintained an information pipeline on Owen's record.

Sixty votes are required to end the filibuster keeping Owen's nomination off the floor; her backers are stalled at 53. Generally state organizations are supportive of any local nominee; Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, says, "The home-state opposition to Owen is almost unprecedented." Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, which is lobbying against Owen, calls the coalition effort "truly impressive, not only in the effectiveness of the grassroots outreach, but in the quality of the work submitted to the senators."

The filibuster against Owen has prompted GOP senators to openly contemplate what they call the "nuclear option": altering Senate rules in order to end the filibuster by a simple majority. Don Stewart, communications director for Texas Sen. John Cornyn, says he expects June hearings of the Senate Rules Committee to consider the change in order to force a vote to approve Owen. "The senator will not give up on her nomination," said Stewart, "as long as he has a way to move it forward." McDonald and Neas discount Cornyn's threats, in part because they believe that even Republican senators will balk at abandoning a practice and tradition they have in the past used themselves. "Cornyn is new to the Senate," said Neas, "and the filibuster is the last check in the federal system protecting minority rights. If majority rule determined everything, George W. Bush would not be president. If they decide to change [the filibuster rules], they will be undoing 200 years of rules and tradition."

For more on the nomination and Owen's record, see www.tpj.org.

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