WASHINGTON — Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor caught more than one of his critics off guard when he was grilled on his record as a staunchly pro-life conservative.
At the same time, he might have earned a little respect from Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearing for his nomination to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Based in Atlanta, the district encompasses Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Unlike other pro-life nominees, Pryor stuck to his guns on previous statements, calling abortion “murder” and the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion “the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., quoted Pryor's “abomination” statement back to him during the June 11 hearing, asking, “Do you believe that now?”
Pryor said, “I do.”
“I appreciate your candor,” Schumer responded. “I really do.”
Later, Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked if Pryor's statement was accurate.
“I believe that not only is [Roe v. Wade] unsupported by the text and structure of the Constitution, but it has [also] led to a morally wrong result,” Pryor replied. “It has led to the slaughter of millions of innocent children.”
President George W. Bush nominated Pryor, a Catholic and Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, to the federal court in April. The judiciary committee is not expected to vote on his nomination before July 10, but it is expected to vote along party lines to send his nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. Republicans hold 10 of the 19 seats on the committee.
The panel's vote originally was scheduled for June 26 but was delayed by hundreds of follow-up queries to Pryor from committee Democrats, National Review reported. Many of the questions required complex answers, and some were more focused on the process of Pryor's nomination than on legal issues.
Pryor's frankness before the Senate committee has set him apart from other pro-life nominees to the bench, according to Douglas Kmiec, dean of the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.
“At the hearing, he has been a defender of his faith and a defender of his ability as a private citizen to articulate criticism of the law that is anchored in his faith,” Kmiec told the Register. “He has very soundly illustrated that while his faith tells him to be strongly opposed to the taking of unborn life, if he were given the privilege of serving as an appellate judge, he would necessarily have to operate within the legal system.”
Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, liked what Pryor had to say.
“I have watched so many hearings in the past where I just waited and hoped for the nominee to say the kinds of things Mr. Pryor has said about Roe v. Wade,” he said. “His testimony is so refreshing.”
Pryor was not granting any interviews regarding his nomination. He is one of several faithful Catholics and other traditional Christians nominated to federal courts who have had a tough row to hoe before pro-abortion and pro-homosexual-rights senators.
Leon Holmes’ nomination made it through the committee on a party-line vote in May and is pending. Democrats are blocking appeals-court nominees Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen — the first filibusters in history against appeals nominees. A Senate filibuster means that 60, instead of a simple majority, must vote to approve a motion.
Acting on a proposal by Senate Majority Leader William Frist, RTenn., the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on June 24 voted 10-0 to reduce the vote threshold needed to end filibusters. Though the rule change is expected to face major hurdles on the Senate floor, it is also thought that the move was taken in anticipation of one or more Supreme Court vacancies this year.
Pryor, who took office as attorney general of Alabama in 1997, has tried civil and criminal cases in state and federal courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court. He has a record of prosecuting public corruption and white-collar crime, streamlining death-penalty appeals, and as being a leader of reform of both the juvenile justice system and criminal sentencing.
Kmiec, who has known Pryor for more than six years, said the nominee is also a devout Catholic and family man who cares deeply about his responsibilities as a parent and as a husband.
“By virtue of that, he lives a conception of Catholic family that would bolster the legal understanding he has,” Kmiec said.
Kmiec said Pryor came to his deep convictions, especially with regard to respect-for-life issues, because he took the Declaration of Independence seriously.
“I've spoken to him about it,” Kmiec said. “He believes that certain rights come from a Creator and that they are unalienable. Therefore the government that is created under the Constitution is designed to protect them and not to facilitate their destruction. He views that as a matter of correct political and legal philosophy.”
Pryor's other convictions were also put to the test during his nomination hearing when he was grilled on his position on homosexual rights. He was asked about his decision to file a brief in February with the Supreme Court that compared homosexual acts to “prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia.”
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., then questioned Pryor about his decision to reschedule a family trip to Disney World to avoid “Gay Day,” a weekend festival at the Orlando, Fla., theme park.
“My wife and I have two daughters who at the time were 6 and 4 years old,” Pryor said. “We made a value judgment.”
But Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director for the leftist People for the American Way, said Pryor is out of touch with mainstream America and should not be confirmed by the Senate.
“Far from having a record that demonstrates commitment to fundamental rights and liberties, he has instead shown an opposition to those fundamental rights and liberties in an effort to overturn them,” Mincberg said. “Were he to be confirmed, he would be an incredible danger to Americans’ rights.”
Priests for Life's Father Pavone adamantly disagrees. He contends that Pryor is more in step with mainstream America than any nominee in recent memory.
Pryor's frankness “encourages a lot of people because it reflects the views of a lot of Americans, and not only believers,” Father Pavone said. Pryor's nomination, he said, “will help the process because it will set a precedent that a justice, a nominee, doesn't have to be ashamed of these positions.”
Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.