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Another Bush administration pick for the federal appellate bench appears headed for a Senate floor battle after the Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly approved the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor Jr. to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The 10-9 vote along party lines July 23 followed two and a half hours of intense argument over the purported anti-Catholic biases of Democrats, alleged lies about political fund raising by Pryor, and, occasionally, the merits of the 41-year-old lawyer’s nomination for a lifetime seat on the court. Pryor’s conservative legal and political positions on states’ rights, abortion, church-state separation, and a host of crime-and-punishment issues have drawn fire from some of the same liberal groups that have opposed many of President George W. Bush’s other circuit court nominees. Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to stop the vote, citing a committee rule that appears to require the consent of at least one member of the minority party before the chairman may call for a vote. But panel Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he interpreted the rule differently and pressed ahead over the protests of the Democrats. The persistence of the Democrats suggested they will filibuster Pryor’s nomination on the Senate floor, a tactic that already has sent two of Bush’s federal appeals court nominees, Priscilla Owen to the 5th Circuit and Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit, into legislative limbo. While Republicans control the Senate by a 51-49 edge, they can call a vote only when 60 senators agree to stop debate, giving Democrats the power to keep matters they oppose from a final vote. Using the filibuster, however, is highly controversial and is opposed by some Democrats. But support for Pryor’s nomination from at least one key Republican is an open question. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), whose position on Pryor has become an issue in his re-election bid, said he supported Pryor’s nomination reaching the Senate floor, but was “reserving my final decision” until after he could speak with Pryor about several concerns. Specter, a supporter of abortion rights who in 1987 voted against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, questioned Pryor at a June hearing about Pryor’s strong opposition to abortion. In a 1997 speech, Pryor called Roe v. Wade “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.” At the hearing, Pryor said the 1973 decision not only was “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.” Pryor added, however, that he could follow Supreme Court precedent allowing abortion. He noted that, as attorney general, he had ordered Alabama prosecutors to give the narrowest possible interpretation to the state’s law prohibiting so-called partial-birth abortion, so as not to violate the high court’s abortion rulings. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sparked a passionate debate about the role of religion in judicial nominations when he decried an advertisement running in Maine and Rhode Island newspapers. The ad, sponsored by the Committee for Justice and the Ave Maria List, shows a closed courtroom door with a sign on it that reads, “Catholics need not apply.” The Committee for Justice, headed by former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, supports Republican judicial nominees. The Ave Maria List is a Catholic political group. Leahy said the charge that Democrats’ opposition to Pryor is based on Pryor’s Catholicism was “despicable, contemptible.” He challenged Republicans on the committee to repudiate the ad. But Pryor’s chief sponsor, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), seemed to justify the ad. He pointed out that the pope is against abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, just as Pryor has said he is. “Are we saying good Catholics need not apply?” asked Sessions. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) jumped in and said that, as a practicing Catholic, “I deeply resent this new line of attack” that anyone who opposes Pryor is anti-Catholic. Later, Durbin noted that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, but Pryor has argued numerous times in favor of it. Considering that position, Durbin added, “I won’t ask the Methodist senator from Alabama whether [Pryor] is a good Catholic.” Sen. C. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said religion should not be an issue in judicial nominations. Chambliss went on to voice his support for Pryor. Specter said he also wants to know more about Pryor’s fund-raising activities. Some Democrats claim Pryor has not told the whole truth about that subject. At issue is whether Pryor accurately answered a question by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) as to whether Pryor was aware of any Alabama companies that could have been members of the Republican Attorneys General Association. According to Democrats, Pryor said he was unaware of any Alabama companies being members of the organization. But Democrats say documents sent to the committee by a former association staff member suggest Pryor raised Republican campaign funds from some Alabama companies as part of his work for the association, which he helped found. Feingold has suggested that Pryor’s solicitation of Alabama companies which he might have to prosecute one day could have created an appearance of impropriety. But, on July 23, the Democrats focused on whether Pryor’s answers to Feingold amounted to a misrepresentation. Hatch called an investigation into Pryor’s statement “a classic game of Beltway gotcha” that had failed to produce any evidence suggesting Pryor lied. Saying he was tired of the entire matter, Hatch also denied Republicans’ efforts to order an investigation into whether the Democrats’ Judiciary Committee staff or the woman who sent the documents had committed any criminal acts. Republicans said Pryor was willing to talk to committee members about any inconsistencies in his testimony and noted that no Democrats had called Pryor. A Pryor spokeswoman said he had no comment about the debate or the vote sending his nomination to the Senate floor. Jonathan Ringel is a staff reporter for the Daily Report, an American Lawyer Media newspaper in Atlanta.

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