Pryor's Problems

Federal Appeals Court Nominee With Record Of Hostility To Church-State Separation Becomes Mired In Senate Debate

Bill Pryor was hardly apologetic.

Before a narrowly divided Senate Judiciary Commitdtee, Pryor, with little wavering, dedfended his career as Alabama's attorney general and argued that if his nomination to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals were confirmed, he would prove an impartial and competent judge, devoid of an ideological agenda. He stood by his ongoing defense of "Ten Commanddments" Judge Roy Moore, his frequent trashing of Roe v. Wade and his strident advocacy of states' rights.

Despite withering questions about his views on church-state separation, reproductive rights and other social issues and his connection to a fund-raising scheme for Republican attorneys general, the Judiciary Committee voted in July along party-lines to send Pryor's nomination to the full Senate for consideration. After a heated committee hearing, at which Pryor's allies accused his critics of animus toward his religious beliefs, Pryor's nomination went to the floor of the Senate, where it was blocked by a filibuster led by Democrats.

The roiling debate over Pryor commenced not long after President George W. Bush nominated the 41-year-old attorney general to the 11th Circuit, which hears appeals in federal cases from Alabama, Georgia and Florida and is one step below the U.S. Supreme Court. When Bush announced Pryor's nomination in April, a chorus of voices in and outside the capital arose in opposition. Foes pointed out that Pryor's career had centered primarily on advancing an agenda hostile to church-state separation, reproductive rights and other constitutional and civil rights.

The criticisms of Pryor's record caught the attention of senators and pundits alike.

The Washington Post reported in June after Pryor testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that "Senate aides from both parties said he has perhaps the most controversial views of any nominee who has come up for confirmation during Bush's presidency." Newspapers such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the Post editorialized against Pryor's nomination.

In a July 23 editorial, called "An Extremist Judicial Nominee," The Times argued that if Pryor's nomination were confirmed, "his rulings on civil rights, abortion, gay rights and the separation of church and state would probably do substantial harm to the rights of all Americans."

Before the Senate Judiciary Commitdtee's first hearing on the nomination, Americans United submitted a report detailing Pryor's legal career, which included a summary of his strident attacks on church-state separation and support for introducing Christianity into the government. The 11-page report detailed Pryor's unflagging support of Alabama Chief Justice Moore, who has fought an ongoing legal battle to keep a Ten Comdmandments monument housed within the state's central judicial building. The report, available online at www.au.org/pryor.htm, noted a 1997 pro-Moore rally at which Pryor proclaimed it was time "for all Christians Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox to save our country and save our courts."

In another speech the same year at a private school in Alabama, Pryor said the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution "are rooted in a Christian perspective of the nature of government and the nature of man." Pryor added that the "challenge of the next millennium will be to preserve the American experiment by restoring its Christian perspective."

At an early June press briefing, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn suggested that, "Pryor's agenda sounds more like that of a right-wing TV preacher than a nominee to the federal appeals court. His words do not reflect the temperament and judgment required of those who would serve in the federal judiciary."

Joining Lynn at the press gathering were other public interest groups opposed to Pryor's nomination, including the Alliance for Justice and the NAACP.

Several senators, including Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), taking cues from AU's report, grilled Pryor about his views on church-state separation.

The report noted that Pryor first defended Moore when the jurist was a state judge in Etowah County who displayed a Ten Commandments plaque and invited Christian clergy to open jury sessions with prayer. When local residents sued Moore for constitutional violations, Pryor defended the judge's actions and in 1997 told the Associated Press that he was unsure whether the rights of non-Christians would be violated if Moore barred their prayers from his courtroom.

Biden, in written questions, asked Pryor if he stood by his comment to the AP. Pryor now said that he believes "the Constitution demands equality of treatment with respect to persons of every religion."

Biden then asked the nominee what he meant by his call to arms made to Christians at the 1997 pro-Moore rally. Pryor stood by his involvement at the rally and said he believes "that God calls all Christians to enter the public square to resolve the moral problems of our society."

Pryor also declined to back away from an assertion he made in an interview to The Alabama Baptist that there are ways for state officials to avoid implementing federal rulings that they don't like. That comment came in the context of defending then-Gov. Fob James, who had drawn national attention when he vowed to defy a court decision ordering Moore to remove the Commandments plaque from the county courtroom.

Biden asked Pryor if he believed the "executive branch must abide by and implement court rulings."

Pryor employed a rather creative defense, asserting that he was thinking of President Andrew Jackson's 1832 veto of a bill re-chartering the Bank of the United States, though the Supreme Court had ruled the charter constitutional.

"The Supreme Court had ruled that the Bank's charter was constitutional, but Jackson acted within his authority to disagree with the decision of the Supreme Court in exercising his veto power granted to him by the Constitution," Pryor said in written responses to Senate Judiciary Committee members.

Pryor also didn't try to gloss over his oft-repeated dislike of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. Early in his career, Pryor called Roe "an abominable decision." During his hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Pryor declared that the ruling was not only "unsupported by the text and structure of the Constitution, but it has led to a morally wrong result. It has led to the slaughter of millions of innocent unborn children."

Several members of the Judiciary Committee raised questions about Pryor's involvement in a fund-raising group for Republican attorneys general. He told senators that he did not believe he had solicited funds from Alabama businesses or trade groups that could have come under investigation by his office. At the time of the final committee hearing, several members complained they had not adequate time to determine the veracity of Pryor's testimony regarding the fund-raising scheme.

In an apparent attempt to silence the critics and to save the increasingly troubled nomdination, The president's allies launchded a campaign suggesting that Pryor was being targeted because of his Roman Catholic beliefs. In what The New York Times editorial page dubbed "a shameful bit of demagoguery," a right-wing lobbying group founded by C. Boyden Gray, a White House counsel for the first President Bush, paid for newspaper ads in states with moderate Redpubddlicans that declared "No Catholics need apply." The ads stated that, "Some in the US Senate are attacking Bill Pryor for having deeply held Catholic beliefs."

Pryor's allies in the Senate, picking up on the anti-religion theme, ramped up charges of religious bigotry. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told the Associated Press that the Senate was applying a litmus test that was "ultimately a religious one."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orin Hatch (R-Utah) took to the Senate floor in late July to decry Americans United's criticisms of Pryor.

In response to Hatch's charge, AU pointed out that it was the Utah Republican who first raised the religion issue by asking Pryor about his affiliation during the committee hearing. In a July 31 press release, AU's Lynn also noted that the group's extensive report on Pryor's record included no reference to the nominee's religious beliefs.

"I don't care where Pryor goes to church," Lynn said. "That is irrelevant to our opposition to Pryor. The man is not fit for the federal courts because he does not respect legal precedent and basic constitutional principles."

The charges of religious bigotry, which Feinstein called "false" "baseless" and "offensive," appear to have emboldened Senate opposition to the Pryor nomination. On the eve of the Senate's first attempt to produce an up-or-down vote on the nomination, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told The Washdington Times, "There will be another filibuster, and we will prevail." (Democratic Senators are blocking two other controversial federal court nominees.)

On July 31, Senate leaders attempted to cut off debate and force a vote on the nomination, but Pryor's allies fell 7 votes short of the 60 needed to end debate.

Lynn commended senators for blocking the nomination.

"Bill Pryor has spent his political career trying to undermine church-state separation and showing contempt for religious pluralism," Lynn said. "His nomination is a divisive one and must be defeated."