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CRC In The News

Senate advances controversial circuit nominee

July 24, 2003
Jen Koons

A divided Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-9 yesterday to approve the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor (R) to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, setting up the possibility of a Democrat-led filibuster on the Senate floor.

President Bush nominated the 41-year-old Pryor in April to 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Since then, he has been heavily criticized by environmentalists who claim he wants to roll back federal environmental protections, including provisions of the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act.

The major wedge between Republicans and Democrats on the judiciary committee, however, involved questions about Pryor's fundraising role for the Republican Attorneys General Association, which he helped found. The committee postponed a vote on Pryor last week following allegations that Pryor asked for political contributions from industry groups under investigation by his office. But after a week of investigation, Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) came prepared to press for a vote.

Democrats on the committee yesterday expressed anger with Hatch for forcing the issue and said they would consider blocking Pryor's confirmation before the full Senate. "By rushing it, you're helping our side in a sense," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Viewed as a strict constructionist on constitutional matters, Pryor has been outspoken about his views on issues ranging from the separation of church and state to abortion rights to environmental policy, including federal authority over wetlands and enforcement of clean air standards for states that fail to force emissions reductions from industrial facilities and other sources.

"Pryor has been one of the nation's most enthusiastic proponents of anti-environmental judicial activism that threatens core environmental statutes," said Doug Kendall, director of the nonprofit Community Rights Counsel.

But under questioning before the Judiciary Committee last month, Pryor insisted his conservative personal views would not impede his ability to rule with impartiality on matters of law. Pryor is the one of a handful of Bush nominees to the federal bench to be opposed by environmentalists, including Carolyn Kuhl, Miguel Estrada, Priscilla Owen and Jeffrey Sutton.

In a July 16 (
) letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, leaders of 15 environmental groups -- including Clean Water Action, Community Rights Counsel, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others -- took issue with Pryor's environmental record. Among other things, the groups cited an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in the landmark 2001 Solid Waste Authority of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ( in which Pryor argued that the federal government lacks authority under the Constitution's Commerce Clause to prevent destruction of wetlands that host migratory birds. He was the only state attorney to file such an argument.

In testimonytestimony (
) last year before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Judiciary Committee, Pryor argued against federal enforcement of the Clean Air Act. "EPA invaded the province of the states and threw their respective air pollution control programs into upheaval by reversing -- with the blunt tool of enforcement instead of a collaborative rulemaking process -- interpretations that are central to the day-to-day activities of state regulators," Pryor said.

In Gibbs v. Babbitt (
), Pryor asked the Supreme Court to review and reverse a decision backing the federal government's right under the Endangered Species Act to prohibit the killing of red wolves on private land.

Pryor was championed by both of Alabama's senators, Jeff Sessions (R), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Richard Shelby (R). Sessions was Pryor's predecessor as Alabama attorney general and was once himself rejected for an appointment to the federal bench. Shelby introduced the nominee to the committee, saying Pryor "has established a reputation as a principled and effective legal advocate for the state of Alabama and has distinguished himself as a leader on many important state issues."

If Pryor's nomination is filibustered on the Senate floor, he will be the third Bush judicial nominee to be stymied by congressional partisanship. Republicans have tried six times since early March to end a Democratic filibuster of Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And they have failed at two attempts to end a similar filibuster of Owen to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kendall said moderate Republicans wishing to serve their constituents should stand with Democrats and vote against Pryor on the floor. "We strongly believe that Mr. Pryor should and will be defeated by vote by the full Senate," he said. "We are confident that after full consideration of Mr. Pryor's record, moderate Senate Republicans will decide to vote against Mr. Pryor."

Kendall said his organization supports a Democratic filibuster as "the least-best way" of keeping Pryor off the bench."

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