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Handing President George W. Bush a stinging defeat, a bitterly divided Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday rejected on a strict party-line vote the nomination of Priscilla Owen for a judgeship on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Owen, a justice of the Texas Supreme Court, became the second Bush judicial nominee to be defeated by the same 10-9 vote in the Democrat-controlled committee. Charles Pickering Sr., also a choice for the 5th Circuit, was voted down. Committee Republicans, pointing out that Owen was unanimously rated “well qualified” by the American Bar Association, said the committee had “crossed a major line” into out-and-out partisanship in rejecting the nominee. “This is a changing of the ground rules. This politicizes the judiciary itself,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “I don’t think the Democratic members understand the risk we are taking when we make politics and ideology a part of the confirmation process.” During the hearing, Republican staffers passed out a statement by Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., supporting Owen. Had the nomination reached the floor, and had Miller joined all 49 Senate Republicans in supporting Owen, she would have been confirmed. But in addition to voting not to support the Owen nomination, the committee voted 10-9 not to send it to the floor with a neutral or negative recommendation. Democrats and liberal activists hailed the vote as the rejection of a judge who, although highly intelligent and the possessor of a stellar r�sum�, was also an “extremist” and a “conservative judicial activist.” Owen, 47, was criticized by abortion rights and women’s groups for her opinions as a Texas judge in a series of so-called parental notification cases. In a dozen appeals in 2000, young women sought the court’s permission to have abortions without notifying their parents, and Owen frequently took the view that the teen-agers had not shown a good reason for their requests to be granted under a state law. Owen was also assailed by labor, environmental and consumer groups for allegedly siding consistently with business interests against injured persons and consumers since she took the bench in 1994. At the nearly two-hour committee meeting, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that President Bush “has often spoken of judicial activism without acknowledging that ends-oriented decision making can come easily to ideologically chosen conservative nominees.” “In the case of Priscilla Owen, we see a perfect example of such an approach to the law,” Leahy said. “This is a difficult vote for me,” acknowledged Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “I have never voted against a woman before. I have met Priscilla Owen, and I like her very much. But a consumer attorney from Texas told me that there is not a single consumer-rights attorney in the state who feels he’d get a fair shake in her courtroom.” Nan Aron, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Justice and a leading Owen opponent, said the committee had sent a strong signal to President Bush that only more moderate nominees will survive the process. “The committee is to be commended for engaging in careful review of Justice Owen’s record and for its decision to withhold its consent,” said Aron. “The message to the White House is that if they send up acceptable judges, they will be confirmed, but those beholden to special interests will be defeated.”

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