What: All Issues : Making Government Work for Everyone, Not Just the Rich or Powerful : Protecting Rights of Congressional Minorities : P.N. 194. Judicial Nominations/ Nomination of Priscilla Richman Owen to be a Federal Appellate Court Judge. (2005 senate Roll Call 128)
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P.N. 194. Judicial Nominations/ Nomination of Priscilla Richman Owen to be a Federal Appellate Court Judge.
senate Roll Call 128     May 25, 2005
Progressive Position:
Nay
Progressive Result:
Loss

Following an unusually high-profile debate about the federal judicial nominations process, 14 moderates in the Senate (seven Democrats and seven Republicans) put together an agreement that led the Senate to a vote on the nomination of Priscilla Richman Owen to be a judge for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Many Democrats, including Progressives, opposed Owen's confirmation on the grounds that she is a judicial activist who has frequently allowed her conservative political beliefs to color her rulings, particularly "against consumers, against workers, [and] against women seeking to exercise their constitutional rights." (Charles Schumer, D-NY.) Republicans fiercely supported Owen, arguing that she was extremely intelligent and "irrefutably well qualified" (Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX). According to the U.S. Constitution, the President of the United States has the power to nominate candidates for federal judgeships with the "Advice and Consent of the Senate," meaning primarily that the Senate votes on whether or not to confirm the president's nominees. Numerous judicial nominations have been the focus of partisan wrangling for more than two decades as each side has endeavored to prevent the sitting president from seating "extremist" judges on the federal bench. Democrats--who at the time of the vote constituted the minority in the Senate--have "filibustered" several of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees, meaning that they have indicated that if any of these nominees are brought to the Senate floor for consideration, they will speak continuously to prevent a vote from occurring. The right to filibuster is one of the few means available to the minority party in the Senate-presently the Democrats-to fight on the floor legislation or nominations that it believes not to be in the best interest of the country, and it is usually reserved for the most egregious issues. Filibusters can be broken by a vote of 60 senators to invoke cloture, thus cutting off debate. When a filibuster is threatened leaders on both sides will informally poll senators to determine how much support each has for its side in the case of a cloture motion; if the one who wants to end the filibuster by invoking cloture-usually the majority leader-does not have the support of 59 other senators, then generally the majority leader will not bring the issue or nomination to the floor. Partisan bitterness over judicial nominations recently came to a head in the Senate as Democrats, including Progressives, indicated that if the Majority Leader brought up any of the President's nominees to the federal bench whom Democrats believed to be unacceptable due to what they viewed as the nominees' very conservative positions on corporate liability and responsibility, civil rights and other issues, they would filibuster the nominations. Republicans began to counter-threaten Democrats, warning that any filibuster from Democrats might be greeted with what they dubbed "the nuclear option," meaning that they would strip Democrats of their right to filibuster judicial nominations by voting to change the Senate rules to require only 51 votes to invoke cloture. Because the current breakdown of the Senate is 55 Republicans and 44 Democrats (with one Independent who often votes with the Democrats), Republicans stood a good chance of succeeding with their rule change plans. A group of 14 moderate senators-seven Democrats and seven Republicans-fearful of the precedent that would be set by a historic rule-change stripping the minority party of this protection, spent several days hammering out a fragile, ambiguously worded compromise wherein Democrats promised not to filibuster judicial nominations except in "extraordinary circumstances" and Republicans stated that they would not now invoke "the nuclear option." The agreement by 14 moderates succeeded in ending, for now, this chapter in the nominations fight because either the Democrats or the Republicans would need most of those 14 votes to win. This agreement also guaranteed that three of President Bush's appellate court nominees, including Owen, would receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate. Progressives decried the agreement because they believed the compromise "trade[d] judges who oppose our civil rights for a temporary filibuster cease-fire," (statement by the Congressional Black Caucus), while some Republicans, including Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), claimed that it violated the principle that nominees should always receive up-or-down votes on the Senate floor. The Senate invoked cloture by a vote of 81 to 18, thus guaranteeing that the Owen nomination would receive an up-or-down vote. The ultimate fate of the compromise, however, remained in question. The cloture vote removed the final procedural obstacle for the Republicans to bring the nomination of Priscilla Owen to a vote, which Republicans knew they could win.

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