WASHINGTON — Under pressure from the pro-abortion lobby, Senate Democrats have slowed the nomination of judicial nominees to glacial speed, according to pro-life activists.

“Even the Washington Post editorial board is criticizing the slow pace,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life. “The interest groups that are calling the shots are implementing a harsh strategy.”

Johnson said groups such as People for the American Way, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood are leading the charge against President Bush's nominations to the federal judiciary.

“They pick out somebody and target them and the Democratic leadership falls into line,” Johnson said.

The current judicial pick earning the wrath of the pro-abortion lobby is Judge Priscilla Owen, who is nominated for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She is currently an associate justice on the Texas Supreme Court.

“Owen's record demonstrates her willingness to ignore the law in pursuit of an ultraconservative agenda, and that agenda gets in the way of her responsibilities as a jurist,” said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein echoed Neas’ comments at a Senate judiciary committee hearing regarding Owen's nomination.

“Accusations have been made that Justice Owen too often stretches or even goes beyond the law as written by the Texas legislature to meet her personal beliefs on several core issues, including abortion and consumer rights,” Feinstein said July 23.

But, as Johnson noted, the Washington Post disagreed with both Feinstein and Neas.

“Her opinions have a certain ideological consistency that might cause some senators to vote against her on those grounds. But our own sense is that the case against her is not strong enough to warrant her rejection by the Senate. Justice Owen's nomination may be a close call, but she should be confirmed,” stated a July 24 Post editorial.

Daschle Stalls

In order for Owen to be appointed to the federal judiciary she must receive a majority vote by the Senate. A majority vote in the judiciary committee is needed for a full Senate vote unless the Senate majority leader uses his power to bring the vote directly to the floor.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who has been considering a presidential run in 2004, has been unwilling to bring a vote to the Senate floor if the judiciary committee will not approve a candidate.

“The committee is split between 10 Democrats and nine Republicans. If just one Democrat votes for her, she'll be approved. But that's the problem,” said Byron York, White House correspondent for National Review.

At her hearing, Judge Owen defended herself.

“I truly believe that the picture that some special interest groups have painted of me is wrong,” she said, “and I very much want the opportunity to try to set the record straight.”

But Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin grilled Owen during her testimony on her judicial opinion in a case involving exceptions to a Texas statute barring minors from procuring an abortion without parental consent.

“You tend to expand and embellish” on the text of the law, Durbin told Owen. “You don't think the positions you take reflect any opposition to a woman's right to choose?” he asked.

“No, I don't think they do,” Owen replied.

Wiser White House

It appears the White House has learned from the Democratic Senate's rejection of Judge Charles Pickering earlier this year and will work harder to get Owen confirmed.

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote a letter July 23 to Democratic Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy saying, “Respectfully, the pace of holding a hearing and confirming circuit court nominees is harming the federal court system.”

His letter came in response to a letter from Leahy that had defended the slow pace of nomination hearings.

Gonzales noted in his letter: “Your letter compares the record to that of the Senate of the past. But the Senate has confirmed only 11 of 32 circuit nominees, which is a 34% rate.”

Gonzales pointed out that the confirmation rate in President Bill Clinton's first two years was 86%, President George H. W. Bush's first two years saw a 96% approval rate and President Ronald Reagan had 95% of his nominees confirmed in his first two years.

“Focusing on these numbers, one could conclude that the Senate currently is well behind the pace of the Senate in the past, particularly with respect to circuit court nominees,” Gonzales wrote.

National Right to Life's Johnson said he thinks a regional prejudice also might be at play in Democratic resistance to appointing Bush nominees.

He referred to comments made by Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who expressed dismay over laws passed by elected representatives from southern states during confirmation hearings for Pickering. The judiciary committee did not confirm Pickering.

“The 5th Circuit covers three states — Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi — that have each passed more anti-choice legislation restricting a woman's right to make personal choices about her own body than any other states,” Cantwell said. “In fact, all three states continue to have unconstitutional and unenforceable laws prohibiting a woman from receiving an abortion on their books, because the legislature in each of these states will not repeal the laws,” she added.

Johnson said Cantwell's statements are highly undemocratic: “She's saying, 'There must be something wrong with these people. We need to get some pro-abortion judges down there.’”

Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.