William Pryor: Unfit to Judge

Introduction

“Right-wing Zealot is Unfit to Judge”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution (May 6, 2003)

“Unfit to Judge . . . Mr. Pryor’s speeches display a disturbingly politicized view of the role of courts.”
Washington Post (Apr. 11, 2003)

These editorial conclusions refer to Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor, Jr., nominated by President Bush to a lifetime seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Pryor, 41 years old, has used the power of his office in an effort to push the law in an extreme far right direction harmful to the rights and interests of ordinary Americans. Pryor has done this not only through litigation in which Alabama was a party, but also by electing to file amicus curiae briefs in cases in which Alabama was not involved and Pryor had no obligation to participate. Pryor is also a frequent public speaker whose speeches make clear that the ideological positions he has taken in these cases are his own.

As discussed in this report, many aspects of Pryor’s record are troubling, including his record on civil rights, reproductive choice, religious liberty, and the Eighth Amendment. Of particular concern are Pryor’s views on the limits on Congress’ authority to enact laws protecting individual and other rights and how he would seek to implement those views if confirmed. Over the past decade, the so-called “states’ rights” or “federalism” revolution promoted by the Federalist Society and other right-wing advocates has severely limited federal civil rights and other protections, particularly by restricting the authority of Congress to require compliance with laws it has passed.

Pryor is one of the architects of this movement and has been a leading activist in these damaging efforts. He personally has been involved in key Supreme Court cases that, by narrow 5-4 majorities, have hobbled Congress’ ability to protect Americans’ rights against discrimination and injury based on disability, race, and age. Worse, he has urged the Court to go even further than it has in the direction of restricting congressional authority.

Moreover, Pryor has advocated the view that the Constitution should not apply to some of the most critical issues pertaining to individual rights and freedoms — including reproductive choice, gay rights, and school prayer — and that these matters should be decided by the states, based on majority vote, regardless of whether constitutional rights are violated. Pryor’s ideology would effectively create a balkanized America in which individual citizens may have fewer constitutional rights depending on where they live.

In addition to advocating his harmful states’ rights and majoritarian ideology, Pryor has tried to push the law far to the right in other areas as well. For example, Pryor has urged Congress to consider repealing or amending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, as well as pushed for other modifications of this critical civil rights law. Pryor’s efforts to undermine the Voting Rights Act have prompted more than a dozen leaders of the civil rights movement, including Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King III, to oppose his confirmation.

Pryor would deny gay men and lesbians the equal protection of the laws. He believes that it is constitutional to imprison gay men and lesbians for expressing their sexuality in the privacy of their own homes and has voluntarily filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court urging the Court to uphold a Texas law that criminalizes such private consensual activity. Pryor is also a staunch opponent of a woman’s right to choose. He has called Roe v. Wade “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history” and has supported efforts to erect unconstitutional barriers to the exercise of reproductive freedom.

Pryor has also tried to undermine the separation of church and state, urging the courts to uphold a judge’s official sponsorship of sectarian prayers before juries as well as religious displays of the Ten Commandments. Most recently, Pryor has supported the efforts of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to display a nearly three-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state Judicial Building, a display ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court. More than forty Alabama clergy and other religious leaders, including Christian clergy, have opposed Moore’s monument as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Not only is Pryor’s ideology extreme, but he also often expresses his views in a manner that is contemptuous of those who disagree with him and of the legal principles that protect the rights and interests of ordinary Americans. Pryor’s extreme positions on so many critical aspects of Americans’ individual rights seriously place in doubt his ability to maintain an open mind about these matters were he to be confirmed.

Pryor’s ideology is well-documented. Indeed, in the words of one reporter writing about Pryor’s possible nomination earlier this year, Pryor would not be a “stealth” nominee but “the opposite -- a B-52 candidate, if you will -- who has spent his career flying high, carpet-bombing the landscape with conservative views on federalism, abortion, church-state separation and a host of crime and punishment issues.”1

As discussed below, Pryor’s crusade to push the law far to the right has been partially successful in terms of his states’ rights agenda. In other areas, the courts have rebuffed him. The situation would be far different, however, if Pryor were an appellate judge deciding these critical questions of constitutional and statutory interpretation. And because the Supreme Court hears so few cases, the federal courts of appeal are the courts of last resort for most Americans.

As more than 200 law professors wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2001, no federal judicial nominee is presumptively entitled to confirmation. Because federal judicial appointments are for life and significantly affect the rights of all Americans, and because of the Senate’s co-equal role with the President in the confirmation process, nominees must demonstrate that they meet the appropriate criteria. These include not only an “exemplary record in the law,” but also a “commitment to protecting the rights of ordinary Americans,” a “record of commitment to the progress made on civil rights, women’s rights, and individual liberties,” and a “respect for the constitutional role Congress plays in promoting these rights and health and safety protections, and ensuring recourse when these rights are breached.”2 Based on these criteria, as discussed below, Pryor’s confirmation to a lifetime position on the important Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit should be rejected.

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