William Pryor: Unfit to Judge

Appeals Court Nominee Promotes Extreme Right-Wing Ideology, Undermines Individual Rights and Constitutional Liberties

As Attorney General of the state of Alabama, William Pryor — nominated by President Bush to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit — has amassed a staggering record of hostility toward the rights and interests of ordinary Americans, including attacks on the authority of Congress to prohibit discrimination and to protect the environment, separation of church and state, reproductive freedom, and equal protection of the laws for gay men and lesbians.

Pryor’s right-wing ideology is far outside the mainstream of American legal thought. Releasing a detailed report today on Pryor’s record and in opposition to Pryor’s confirmation, People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas called Pryor “one of the most dangerous judicial nominees of this administration that we’ve seen yet.”

“What can President Bush be thinking?” asked Neas. “Maybe President Bush thinks Bill Pryor will make other far-right judicial nominees look tame. Maybe he thinks any Supreme Court nominee will look good in comparison. Or maybe Pryor is this month’s political protection payment to satisfy the demands of the Religious Right political leaders and their allies who are constantly on guard for any signs of moderation. Whatever the explanation, there is no excuse for this nomination.”

Were he to be confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit, Pryor would pose an enormous threat to the rights, protections and freedoms of all Americans, said Neas. “Pryor’s ‘states’ rights’ ideology alone would severely weaken the government’s ability to protect the health, safety and rights of ordinary Americans. Add to this Pryor’s extremist views on church-state separation, gay rights, and other matters, and it is clear that Pryor does not meet the significant criteria for confirmation to a lifetime federal judgeship.”

People For the American Way’s report documents Pryor’s efforts to push the law in an extreme far right direction. Pryor has done this not only through litigation in which Alabama was a party, but also by filing 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.

Pryor is a leading architect of the recent “states’ rights” or “federalism” movement to limit the authority of Congress to enact laws protecting individual and other rights. He personally has been involved in key Supreme Court cases that, by narrow 5-4 majorities, have restricted the ability of Congress 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. Just last month, for example, the Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist, rejected Pryor’s argument that the states should be immune from lawsuits for damages brought by state employees for violation of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Pryor has also 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.

Neas said that Pryor’s “majority rules” ideology would lead to a system in which fundamental rights are determined by the political majority in each state, contrary to the very purpose of the Bill of Rights. “Bill Pryor apparently doesn’t care that the Bill of Rights was intended to remove certain fundamental human rights from the political process,” said Neas.

Pryor is often contemptuous of viewpoints with which he does not agree, striking a tone of ridicule in his speeches, briefs and arguments while taking deadly aim at the rights and freedoms under debate. 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 has led Alabama to fight federal protection for victims of age discrimination, and has urged Congress to consider repealing or modifying key provisions of the Voting Rights Act,” said Neas. “Pryor has argued that the Constitution should not apply to certain individual rights and freedoms, such as reproductive choice, gay rights, and school prayer. How can such an outspoken critic of constitutional protections fairly address cases in the second highest court in the land? William Pryor’s zealotry clearly makes him unfit to judge.”

Other aspects of Pryor’s record discussed in People For the American Way’s report include:

  • Pryor defended Alabama’s practice of handcuffing prisoners to a hitching post in a case in which an inmate alleged he was left in the hot sun for seven hours without water or bathroom breaks. The Court rejected Pryor’s argument, holding that “the use of the hitching post under these circumstances violated ‘the basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment, [which] is nothing less than the dignity of man.’” Pryor decried the ruling, quoting Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent in calling the decision a case of the majority applying “its own subjective views on appropriate methods of prison discipline.”
  • Pryor urged the Supreme Court to hold that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, state employees cannot sue for damages to protect their rights against discrimination. The Court agreed, in one of a series of 5-4 decisions on “states’ rights” questions. Although the ADA is regarded as one of the landmark civil rights laws of the past fifteen years, Pryor said he was “proud” of his role in “protecting the hard-earned dollars of Alabama taxpayers when Congress imposes illegal mandates on our state.”
  • Pryor has offered steadfast support inside the court and out for a state judge who has officially sponsored sectarian prayers in the courtroom before juries and who has installed religious displays of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and in the state judicial building. Pryor has outspokenly deplored rulings by the courts to uphold the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
  • Pryor 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. He defended a “partial-birth abortion” ban in Alabama, although it lacked the constitutionally required exception to protect the health of the pregnant woman.
  • Pryor believes that it is constitutional to imprison gay men and lesbians for having sex in the privacy of their own homes, and has filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold Texas’ “Homosexual Conduct law,” which criminalizes such conduct. Pryor believes that singling out gay men and lesbians in this manner does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the same brief, Pryor equated for purposes of legal analysis sex between two adults of the same gender with “activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia…”
  • Pryor has criticized as “political correctness” the Supreme Court’s ruling that the denial of admission to women by the Virginia Military Institute, a public, taxpayer-supported institution, violated women’s rights to equal protection.

    As People For the American Way’s report on Pryor concludes:

    Far from meeting the burden of demonstrating a record of commitment to “protecting the rights of ordinary Americans” and to “the progress made on civil rights, women’s rights and individual liberties,” Pryor has tried to turn back the clock on these significant matters. In testimony that Pryor gave before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1997, Pryor told the committee that “your role of advice and consent in judicial nominations cannot be overstated.” We could not agree more. Ordinary Americans cannot afford to have William Pryor sitting in judgment on their rights and interests. The Senate Judiciary Committee should reject Pryor’s confirmation.

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