The Pryor Threat

By Allen Tullos

Vol. 25, no. 1-4, 2003 pp. 11-12

What happens when the Bush administration's obsession with handing federal judgeships to shrewd and articulate, right wing, strict-constructionist ideologues draws too big of a crowd to slip a nominee unnoticed through the door? Perhaps by the time you read this, Senate Republicans and Zell Miller (D-GA), back from summer recess, will have given up their all-out push to confirm Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor as a judge on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. If not, seek cover for your children and your children's children. If so, consider how lengthy a record of reactionary positions, outrageous advocacies, and conflicts of interest must exist to deny a Bush choice, and then only by filibuster.

Granted, the prize is big and the unwinding promise of Pryor's backward-looking future (he's forty-one) seems to stretch on forever. The Eleventh Circuit, based in Atlanta and handling federal appeals from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, is one stop below the U. S. Supreme Court. Most cases that come into the Eleventh end in the Eleventh. Bill Pryor was nominated only after the Senate Judiciary Committee of the 107the Congress refused to advance the President's first choice, federal magistrate William H. Steele, also from Mobile, who, like Pryor, was strongly opposed by African-American civil rights organizations.

In Pryor's confirmation hearings, the man the Wall Street Journal called "the intellectual leader of Alabama Republicans" became entangled in the loose ends of a divided mind. Unpersuasive to Democrats that he could consistently separate his widely expressed political and religious beliefs from his judicial rulings, Pryor was also brazen, even for members of the Millionaires Club, in peddling access.

As to Bill Pryor's beliefs, let's revisit a vivid Saturday in April, 1997, when thousands of ultra-conservative Christians from throughout the U. S. rallied on the Alabama state capitol steps in Montgomery to support one of circuit judge Roy Moore's demagogic seasonal dances: his defiance of a court order to take down a Ten Commandments display from the wall of his north Alabama courtroom. Preceded by the sounds of Christian rock and accompanied by the waving of U.S. and Confederate flags, Pryor took his place with other speakers of the day: Governor Fob James--who threatened to call out the national guard to keep "Moses" Moore's Commandments hanging--Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed; neo-con talk show host and presidential candidate Alan Keyes; Don Wildmon of the American Family Association; and George Grant, who in a 1993 book regretted that unreformed homosexuals could not be executed as they were back in the good Old Testament days.

"God has chosen this time and this place," Pryor told the crowd with chilling assurance, "so that we can save our country and save our courts for our children." Reloading, he blasted Roe v. Wade: "I will never forget January. 22, 1973, the day seven members of our highest court ripped the Constitution and ripped out the life of millions of unborn children."

As Alabama's attorney general, Pryor has traveled and spoken widely on behalf of the New Federalist Society, states rights zealots in a prettified package. New Federalist beliefs, for example, inform Pryor's opposition to the multistate lawsuit against tobacco companies. Pryor also favored a lenient path for electric generating companies to upgrade their coal burning plants without being forced to add pollution control devices. He sought to cut back the number of appeals for death penalty inmates. For staunchly defending the firearms industry, he won the National Rifle Association's highest award.

Impeccable, hermetic righteousness goes a long way with Bush strategists and talent scouts such as Karl Rove, who advised Pryor and applauded his aggressive outspokenness as the Alabama attorney general roamed beyond Alabama, firing off amicus briefs. One of these was in defense of the sodomy law that was overturned by the Supreme Court this June in Lawrence v. Texas. Here Pryor argued, much as Pennsylvania Senator Rick


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Santorum did, that permitting same-sex relations would open the door to the legalization of "prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography and even incest and pedophilia."

Pryor's confirmation difficulties should be laid in large part to over-reaching by his major handler in the confirmation process, fellow Mobilian Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III, the junior senator from Alabama. Sessions, as desperate as Bush and company are to gut federally-protected rights and services, badly miscalculated the diverse, national resistance Pryor's nomination generated, and he was ineffectual in diffusing it.

Among their last desperate acts to gain votes, the Pryor camp complained of anti-Catholic prejudice, especially with regard to the attorney general's position on abortion. They ran media ads intended to pressure still-undecided senators in two heavily Catholic states, Maine and Rhode Island. The strategy backfired. As the New York Times editorialized, this was a "false, cynical and divisive charge."

Along straight party lines, the Judiciary Committee vote was ten to nine in favor of confirmation. On the Senate floor, the Democrats chose to filibuster the Pryor nomination and, by summer recess, had rallied enough members of both parties to avoid cloture.

What's to be learned from the Pryor episode? That others are sure to follow. That the Bush Administration will keep pressing for judicial nominees whose obliging logic is too far afield to be justified by the court-ordered election victory George Bush claimed, or by his lip service to "compassionate conservatism." With the future at stake, this is how the law's chilliest blood transfuses the veins of undemocratic America. One pending ultra-conservative nominee is Texas Judge Priscilla Owen.

Finally, despite the piled-high extremism of the Alabama attorney general, senators seemed most troubled by the appearance of influence peddling through an organization Bill Pryor conceived and co-founded: the Republican Attorney Generals Association. Why did this take so long to be noticed? In March of 2002, the Washington Post reported that RAGA was soliciting large contributions "from corporations that are embroiled in--or are seeking to avert--lawsuits by states." Pryor saw nothing wrong with this. "I am proud to support [RAGA], and it does not create a conflict of interest," said the man who would render justice blind.

Allen Tullos is editor of Southern Changes.