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After a contentious hearing last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it looked like the only thing that will stand between nominee William Pryor and the federal bench is a filibuster. And it could be a deal-breaker. The 41-year-old Pryor, who is Alabama’s attorney general, has been tapped by President George W. Bush for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. His nomination has been clouded by strong opposition from Bush’s opponents. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s June 11 hearing did nothing to change the outlook. One by one, Democratic senators who have engineered filibusters blocking two other nominees to federal appeals courts took aim at Pryor’s conservative positions. They challenged him on a wide range of issues — abortion, church-state separation, civil rights, federal power over the states, and gun control. As expected, Pryor received ardent support from the panel’s Republicans. With a one-vote margin on the Judiciary Committee, the Republicans can send the nomination to the full Senate without any Democratic support. But it’s before the full Senate that Pryor’s nomination could become bogged down. Converting a Democrat on the panel has helped other controversial nominees avoid the filibuster limbo that plagues the nominations of appellate lawyer Miguel Estrada to the D.C Circuit and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to the 5th Circuit. Indeed, the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was considered key for 6th Circuit nominee Jeffrey Sutton, whom the Senate confirmed in April by a 52-41 vote. Sutton’s main problem was his work on cases in which the Supreme Court held that Congress did not have the authority to extend to state governments laws prohibiting discrimination based on age, disability, or national origin. Feinstein told Pryor at last week’s hearing that she believes one can be a fierce courtroom advocate and then relinquish those views when taking office as a judge. But, she added, “in this case my theory is really put to a test. Virtually in every area, you have extraordinarily strong views.” Feinstein took issue with a 1997 speech in which Pryor said the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were “rooted in a Christian perspective.” “What are others to think of that statement?” asked Feinstein. As he did throughout the 41 Feinstein, however, sounded unconvinced. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Pryor’s former boss and chief sponsor on the committee, drew a distinction between Pryor’s support of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s monument of the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building and the way Moore is defending the monument. Pryor did not back Moore’s argument, Sessions said, which is why Moore found his own lawyers. “It’s clearly false to suggest [Pryor] is some unthinking tool of the right wing and the Christian right,” Sessions said, complaining that Pryor was being subjected to unfair attacks. “He has not been as people have caricatured him,” Sessions continued. He pointed to Pryor’s support from some Alabama Democrats, including several key black politicians who had been active in civil rights work. Sen. C. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) cited Pryor’s support from Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat. Chambliss read from a March 31 letter in which Baker praised Pryor’s work against white collar crime, public corruption, and Alabama’s former law banning interracial marriages. Baker endorsed Pryor’s nomination to the 11th Circuit, adding, “My only regret is that I will no longer have Bill as a fellow attorney general fighting for what is right, but I know that his work on the bench will continue to serve as an example of how the public trust should be upheld.” One of Pryor’s fiercest critics was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who opened his remarks by urging Pryor’s two young daughters not to take his criticism as a personal attack on their father. “This is how we do it here,” said Schumer, who then called Pryor’s views “an unfortunate stitching together of the worst parts of the most troubling judges we’ve seen thus far.” He challenged Pryor to go beyond declaring that he would follow the law: “Everyone says that.” Schumer took aim at Pryor’s comments against Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision upholding abortion rights. In a 1997 speech before the Federalist Society, Pryor called the decision “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.” Pryor acknowledged his vehement opposition to abortion — calling it “the taking of innocent human life” — but said his record as attorney general showed he followed the Supreme Court’s precedent on abortion anyway. He said that when Alabama passed a law banning so-called partial birth abortions, the law could have been interpreted to restrict all abortions. But he ordered the state’s prosecutors to apply the narrowest possible interpretation to the law so that they would stay within the Supreme Court’s precedents. Pryor said he’d done his duty in following the law — even laws he didn’t like. Schumer and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) challenged part of one of Pryor’s speeches, which the nominee ended with a prayer, saying, “Please, God, no more Souters.” The reference was to Supreme Court Justice David Souter, an appointee of the first President George Bush. Souter’s record has disappointed many archconservatives. “What’s wrong with Justice Souter?” Schumer asked. “Are you hostile to Justice Souter because he hasn’t toed the party line?” Pryor called his remark “my feeble attempt at humor” and said he simply disagreed with two Souter opinions against the arguments made by the state of Alabama. Kennedy then criticized Pryor for having once said the constitutionality of the electric chair ” ‘should not be decided by nine octogenarian lawyers who happen to sit on the Supreme Court.’ “ The senator asked: “Do you think that’s an appropriate way to refer to the Supreme Court of the United States?” Pryor said it was “probably overheated political rhetoric.” Pressed further by Kennedy, Pryor relented: “I think it was an inappropriate remark, Senator.” Jonathan Ringel of the Fulton County Daily Report in Atlanta reported from Washington. Rebecca Jacob, a Legal Times intern, contributed to this article.

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