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Federal appeals Judge William H. Pryor Jr., whose fierce opposition to abortion prompted a two-year fight over his Senate confirmation, said Wednesday that “it’d certainly be wrong for a Catholic lawyer or judge to do something to advance a grave evil like abortion.” Pryor, who two weeks ago won a narrow Senate confirmation to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was answering a question about how Catholic lawyers should approach Roe v. Wade. He had just delivered an address to the St. Thomas More Society, a Catholic lawyers group that invited him to speak for its luncheon meeting at the offices of Smith, Gambrell & Russell. Pryor emphasized that as an appeals court judge he would uphold abortion laws. “The law does not empower you to stop someone else from doing evil,” he said. Upholding a law “does not make you a formal cooperator with the evil act.” Pryor’s announced topic at the meeting was “The Duty of a Catholic Lawyer or Judge to Avoid Evil.” But when he reached the podium, he said he had chosen a different topic, and he drew laughs when he said that one of the benefits of life tenure is the freedom to change his mind. But Pryor did talk about evil, using as an example Hugo Black, the Alabama lawyer and U.S. senator who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937 by President Roosevelt. Though Black allied himself with the liberal wing of the court, he always carried the baggage of having at one time been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a group he later disavowed. Pryor told the story of Father James Coyle, a pastor in the 1920s of St. Paul’s Church in Birmingham, Ala. — the church where Pryor’s first child was baptized. Coyle allegedly was murdered by a Methodist minister, Edwin Stephenson, who was angry with Coyle for converting his daughter to Catholicism and marrying her to a Puerto Rican man. During his trial, Stephenson was represented by Black, whom Pryor said stoked the racial and religious prejudices of the jury, which was made up partly of Klan members. Black won Stephenson’s acquittal but compromised his own morality in the process, Pryor suggested. “Many of Black’s trial tactics were despicable, even evil,” Pryor said. “You’re a Catholic, aren’t you?” Black would ask witnesses, then abruptly end his questions, according to Pryor. Black drew the courtroom blinds and shined floodlights on the husband of Stephenson’s daughter, Pedro Gussman, in an attempt to convince the jury that he was black instead of Puerto Rican. When the prosecution asserted that Gussman was of Castilian descent, Black responded, “He has descended a long way.” Pryor said the lesson to the story is that “a lawyer’s call is not to win at any cost. Whether you can get away with a tactic that might benefit your client is not the sole measure of its propriety.” Today, Pryor works in a federal courthouse in Birmingham named to honor Black, and the irony doesn’t escape him. “When I go to work each day in the Hugo Black courthouse and see the bust of that judge in the rotunda, I cannot help but say the prayer for Father Coyle that he used as the title of a poem: requiescat in pace.” PERSONAL BELIEFS After the speech, Pryor took questions, which is when Roe v. Wade came up. Pryor’s statement that he would follow the 1973 decision, which he previously has called “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history,” reflected his promise at his Senate confirmation hearing two years ago to adhere to all decisions of the Supreme Court, whether or not he agreed with them. Asked about the possibility of Roe being struck down, Pryor said it wasn’t his place as an appeals court judge to comment. “That’s something the Supreme Court would have to consider. I don’t have that privilege.” Becky Rafter, the executive director of the local chapter of the pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Pryor’s comments were “a concrete example” of why the group “fought against the Pryor nomination in the first place.” Rafter said she was concerned particularly about Pryor because, as a judge on a federal appeals court, he will deal with abortion only in the most delicate and complex situations, such as when a girl or woman has been the victim of rape or incest. “His personal beliefs are going to affect his rulings. He is going to look at that lawyer as advancing an evil,” she said. Alex W. Smith, a retired partner from Smith Gambrell who hosted the event, said the judge’s comments were entirely proper. “He won’t vote against [ Roe v. Wade] in a case,” said Smith, who called Pryor “brilliant.” Representing someone to help her get an abortion, said Smith, “would be wrong and be a serious sin.” CONFIRMATION FIGHT Along with abortion rights supporters, other liberal groups had vigorously opposed Pryor’s nomination for the past two years. They hounded him with reminders that he once ended a speech praying for “no more Souters.” That was a reference to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, whose votes to uphold Roe have disappointed many conservatives. At his 2003 Senate hearing, Pryor said the comment was “a feeble attempt at humor” prompted by Souter’s votes against Alabama in two cases. Democrats launched a filibuster against Pryor, but last year President Bush placed him on the bench through the president’s power to make temporary appointments during a congressional recess. Pryor won confirmation when he was included in a deal in which centrist Democrats agreed to allow Pryor and two other embattled nominees to get up-or-down votes in return for commitments by centrist Republicans not to ban the judicial filibuster. The Senate two weeks ago confirmed Pryor by a vote of 53-45. THICK POLITICAL SKIN Earlier on Wednesday, Pryor gave an interview to the Daily Report in which he said he held no grudges from his 26-month confirmation fight. “I don’t have any bitterness whatsoever about the process I went through,” Pryor said. “I have perhaps unusually thick political skin,” he added. He credited his years as Alabama’s attorney general, in a political environment he described as “blood sport,” for toughening him. Asked if he thinks his work on the 11th Circuit could prompt some of the 45 senators who voted against him to rethink their positions years from now, Pryor said, “I don’t know whether that is possible in our current state of affairs.” Pryor added that his goal is to be honest, diligent and fair. One of Pryor’s chief critics, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, released a statement saying he wished Pryor well. “I would be greatly relieved if Judge Pryor’s lengthy record of ideological advocacy were not to become prologue for his actions during his lifetime appointment, and only time and his actual service will tell,” the statement read. During the Daily Report interview, Pryor was reluctant to comment on the judicial nomination process, saying he preferred to leave such discussion to elected officials. He allowed that he did not regret his candor when he was Alabama attorney general, explaining that it was the best way for constituents to understand his philosophy. Pryor also declined to comment on allegations by some supporters that his opponents were biased against Catholics, a charge that infuriated Leahy and other Democratic, Catholic senators such as Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Richard Durbin of Illinois. Pryor said that as attorney general, “I learned to accept criticism and not worry about unfair charges. … I was not one who worried about the past or had regrets.” He was much more willing to discuss the work of the 11th Circuit and added that he looked forward to hiring next year’s clerks now that he has been confirmed. Pryor said lawyers coming before the court have ranged from “terrific” to “leaving something to be desired.” He stressed that advocates should come to oral arguments prepared to do more than restate arguments made in their briefs. If the court grants oral argument, Pryor said, “we’re struggling with something,” and judges will want lawyers to help them find a resolution with knowledge from the record and a keen understanding of the law. “I do think there is some reason for optimism in this area,” Pryor added, noting that many firms are developing appellate specialists.

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