Today Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked the nomination of William H. Pryor to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals from moving forward. The 53-44 vote in favor of ending the Democratic filibuster fell short of the 60 votes needed to move Pryor’s nomination forward. The partisan but unusually rancorous debate about Pryor’s nomination focused heavily on recent Republican charges that Democrats are biased against Catholic nominees. (See Washington Post article.)
The Pryor debate capped off a week of unsuccessful votes on appeals court nominees, including those of Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, whose nominations have now been stalled for several months. However, another stalled nominee, Carolyn Kuhl, did not face a vote on her nomination, delaying the suspense as to whether her nomination will also be subject to a filibuster. Members of the Senate will now go home to enjoy their usual summer recess, and will not return until after Labor Day to resume the nominations debate.
On July 23, in a 10-9 vote strictly along party lines, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to forward Pryor’s nomination to the floor of the Senate. (See July 23 Washington Post article.) The vote was not completely unexpected, although Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), known as a moderate Republican, had been lobbied heavily to break party ranks to prevent Pryor’s nomination from moving forward. (See Montgomery Advertiser article.) However, despite the lobbying and his own concerns about Pryor’s record, Sen. Specter ultimately decided to allow Pryor’s nomination to move to the Senate floor, and joined other members of his party in voting for Pryor’s nomination to continue. (See Spector Speaks on Pryor.)
While Pryor’s nomination was still pending before the Judiciary Committee, the Committee for Justice, a group headed by former Bush I White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray which supports conservative nominees, got involved by running ads in Maine and Rhode Island (ads in PDF format), accusing legislators who oppose Pryor of engaging in anti-Catholic bias. The ads were primarily designed to influence moderate senators Olympia Snowe and Lincoln Chafee, both of whom might finally break Republican ranks to oppose a nominee extreme as Pryor. The ads, which stated “Catholics Need Not Apply,” accompanied by a picture of a courthouse door, angered Democratic senators, especially the Catholic senators who had previously supported other Catholic nominees.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), raised in a Catholic home, called the charges of anti-Catholic bias “despicable” and a “slander.” (See Los Angeles Times article and Leahy’s Dear Colleague letter.) Both in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor, senators opposing Pryor reiterated their protests against the bias charge, and the injection of religion into the process generally, but Republicans continue to charge that the Democrats’ opposition to Pryor and other conservative nominees is based upon a religious litmus test. (See Chicago Tribune story.)
Another charge leveled against Pryor is that as Alabama Attorney General and the treasurer of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), he solicited funds from corporations from tobacco, drug, energy and banking corporations that are often investigated by states and their attorneys general, and did not testify truthfully when asked about his fundraising activities by the Senate Judiciary Committee. (See New York Times article.) One Alabama legal expert (fellow blogger and NELA member Edward Stein) discusses why these activities may have violated Alabama law. (See 7/18 Votelaw blog entry.) Although Democrats protested the July 23 committee vote on the grounds that too many unanswered questions remained about Pryor’s fundraising on behalf of RAGA, that too failed to delay the committee vote, or influence the vote on the Senate floor, as all Republicans (and Democrats Zell Miller (GA) and Ben Nelson (NE) voted in favor of the cloture vote in opposition to the Democratic filibuster.
The battle about judicial nominees is sure to continue fast and furious upon the Senate’s return from recess. Nominees Pryor, Estrada and Owen are all stalled due to filibusters, and 9th Circuit nominee Carolyn Kuhl may also face further delay on her nomination. The Senate Judiciary Committee also seems determined to move ahead on the nominations of 6th Circuit nominees which until now have been subject to holds (or “blue slips”) placed by Michigan Democratic senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. (See Detroit Free Press article.) While the Senate may slow down for the next month, it is extremely important to keep up the opposition to confirming conservative nominees whose views are hostile to civil rights and workers rights.
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