Last year, when the Democrats held a 10-9 majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Judiciary Committee voted to approve exactly one hundred judicial nominees, including 17 circuit court nominees. (See Sen. Leahy’s floor speech (from the former chair of the Judiciary Committee).) Many of these nominations were controversial, but nonetheless passed through the committee for votes on the Senate floor. Only two nominees didn’t make it, due to the extremity of their prior records. One of those nominees was Priscilla Owen. Now that the Republicans command a majority in the Senate and on the Judiciary Committee, guess who’s back under consideration? That’s right, a nominee that last year’s incarnation of the committee already found to be the worst of the worst.
This time, she says she’ll judge fairly. (See today’s AP article.) I suppose her 9-year history of doing otherwise shouldn’t count. Politics is politics, I suppose, but the committee said in essence back in September: we’ll approve many of the President’s nominees, but we won’t approve this one. Even though the nominees have to agree to follow stare decisis, that doesn’t bind the people voting on them at all, I guess.
Why is Priscilla Owen’s nomination such a bad idea? Because Owen’s record shows that she sides with corporate interests and is an opponent of employees’ rights. Anchoring the far-right end of a very conservative court, Owen consistently favors big business and special interests over the claims of ordinary Americans. Before joining the court, Owen primarily represented large corporations, as a partner at a Houston law firm. On the Texas Supreme Court, she has tended to distort or rewrite the law to reach her desired outcome, voting consistently to dismiss the claims of injured workers and consumers. (See NELA’s Case Analysis, prepared last year, for examples of some of the points raised below, and the Alliance for Justice’s judicial website, IndependentJudiciary.com for more information on Owen’s record).
• Justice Owen distorts the law to condone workplace bigotry.
In several cases, Justice Owen has dissented from Texas Supreme Court rulings affecting the rights of employees, including the right to be free from discrimination. In one case, Owen’s interpretation of a key Texas civil rights law would have effectively rewritten part of that law and made it much more difficult for employees to prove discrimination. In another employment case, the majority explained that Owen’s dissent “defie[d] the Legislature’s clear and express limits on our jurisdiction.”
• Justice Owen consistently votes against access to the courts and jury decisions supporting workers and individual plaintiffs.
Many of Justice Owen’s dissents would have seriously impaired ordinary citizens’ ability to access the courts and to obtain justice, and often are dismissive of juries and of jury findings. In one example, Owen’s dissenting position was criticized by other justices as an attempted “judicial sleight-of-hand to circumvent” the Texas Constitution’s protection of jury trial rights. She also voted to reverse a $2.5 million judgment for a man who was killed while working along an interstate highway, by disregarding the testimony of the company’s own managers about the extreme safety hazards and the company’s failure to comply with state safety guidelines, and instead concluding there was no evidence of a “likelihood of serious injury.”
• Justice Owen protects employers by deliberately ignoring the big picture.
To further justify decisions shielding corporations, she separates allegations to analyze without context. Separating allegations, she finds each insufficient. For example, in a harassment case involving a male supervisor who bullied female employees by charging them like a bull, screaming profanities, forcing them to do menial cleaning chores and making them stand in his office while he leered at them, she found the evidence insufficient, viewing the allegations individually rather than part of a collective pattern of harassment.
• Justice Owen’s delay in writing opinions has caused extreme harm to parties before her court.
She delayed for over two years a ruling concerning a quadriplegic teenager who had been awarded $40 million in damages in his case against Ford Motor Company, leaving his destitute family unable to provide the specialized medical care he desperately needed. Her own colleagues were embarrassed by and apologized for the inexcusable delay. She eventually ruled on grounds neither briefed nor argued by any of the parties. While the case was pending, the plaintiff died for lack of nursing care which the family could not afford.
• Justice Owen is outside the mainstream on her own conservative court.
She votes consistently to the far right of her colleagues (all Republicans) on the conservative Texas Supreme Court. She commonly dissents from their majority opinions to pursue a very narrow right-wing agenda. On one occasion, her colleagues said of Justice Owen’s dissent that it was “nothing more than inflammatory rhetoric and thus merits no response.”
• Justice Owen votes in favor of her campaign contributors.
Owen is almost legendary in her home state for ruling in favor of corporate contributors to her judicial re-election campaigns, voting for contributors over 80% of the time. After receiving an $8,600 contribution from Enron, Justice Owen wrote an opinion that saved Enron a significant amount in school taxes. After receiving a defense firm’s $14,000 campaign contribution, Owen voted that the woman couldn’t sue the law firm who she claimed gave her bad legal advice in a criminal case that landed her in jail. According to Owen, the woman had no standing to sue because she was a convicted felon, although the the basis of the lawsuit was whether she should have received a felony conviction.
After reading this, if you aren’t convinced that Priscilla Owen’s nomination should have continued to remain DOA, then there’s not much more I can say. But if you’re now angry that we again have to waste valuable time and energy fighting this nomination, then take action now at WF’s Action Center. The Senate Judiciary Committee previously got it right last September when they rejected her nomination. Senate politics may have changed, but Justice Owen’s record hasn’t.