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Public Statements

Executive Session

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


EXECUTIVE SESSION -- (Senate - May 19, 2005)

NOMINATION OF PRISCILLA RICHMAN OWEN TO BE UNITED STATES CIRCUIT JUDGE FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT--Resumed

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Mr. VITTER. I thank the Chair.

Mr. President, in recent weeks, the American people, including the citizens of Louisiana, have heard a lot about Senate rules, about historical precedent, about something very confusing called the filibuster, about the Senate's constitutional duty, and advice and consent. I think for the average American, for the average Louisianan, this seems pretty esoteric. This seems pretty out of touch with their everyday lives, this issue of how the Senate governs itself.

But there are issues at the heart of this which are important to those citizens, including my constituents in Louisiana. And those issues are: Is the Senate going to do its job? Are we as Senators going to do our job and do the people's business, address important issues of the day to build up our country and make it better?

Also, there is the fundamental issue of fairness. Are we going to be fair in this process to all concerned?

Those are themes, those are issues to which Americans all across the country, certainly my citizens in Louisiana relate and care about. Are we going to do the people's business? Are we going to act in a way that is fair to all? Those are issues directly at the heart of this debate--doing the people's business.

Last year, I ran for the Senate for the first time. In doing so, of course, I traveled all around Louisiana and talked to citizens of all walks of life in every corner of the State. One theme I heard over and over from all sorts of folks of both parties was: Please go up there and do what is right and do the people's business. Get beyond all of this bitter partisanship, this obstructionism, the filibuster. Do the people's business in terms of important issues of the day. That is what folks in Louisiana told me over and over again.

They care about putting good people on the bench and having our courts run properly and filling these vacancies. They also care about other important business--passing a highway bill, building infrastructure so we can create good jobs in this country and Louisiana, passing a national energy policy to get us on track in terms of energy independence. That is important for our national security, and that is important for our economic security.

Again, wherever I went, with whomever I talked--Black, White, Democrat, Republican, and everyone in between--folks said over and over: Look, we are sending you there to do our business, to face issues, to vote, to move forward as a country, not to obstruct, not to play political games, not to get mired in bitter partisanship, but to take care of us and to address our concerns. And that is important.

The other issue that is at the heart of this debate that ordinary citizens around the country and Louisiana care about is fairness. Are you going to act in a way that is fundamentally fair to everybody concerned? And, of course, that is at issue here as well.

We have judicial nominees who have been nominated not weeks ago or months ago but, in many cases, years ago; in some cases, over 4 years ago. Their lives have been disrupted. They have been attacked by interest groups around the country, as well as Members of Congress. Many charges have been leveled against them that are patently untrue and patently unfair. And after all of that turmoil,

after all of those trials and tribulations, they do not even get an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate. There is no resolution to the trial, the jury never comes back. We do not get to vote and say this person should be on the court or this person should not be on the court. That is not fair. That is not fair in the minds of any ordinary American. It is not fair in the minds of the citizens of Louisiana.

We need to bring some fundamental fairness to this process. Sure, we need to have an important debate. Sure, we need to vet all the information. We can have differences of opinion. But then at the end of the day, we need to have resolution, we need to have an up-or-down vote. It is time to do that with all of these judicial nominees.

We have a historic opportunity in the Senate right now to address both of those concerns: to do the people's business, to do our job, to vote, and to move on to other key issues, such as the highway bill, building jobs, building energy independence--and we have the opportunity to act honorably and with fundamental fairness by treating all concerned in a fundamentally fair way in giving these nominees an up-or-down vote.

I stand on the Senate floor today to ask that we all come together to do that because that is the right thing to do, not for party leaders, not for the President, or for interest groups on the left or the right. It is the right thing to do for the American people. It is the right thing to do for the citizens of each of our respective States.

I make a plea in particular to my colleague from Louisiana, Senator Landrieu, to do that. She is in a unique position to reach out and achieve fundamental fairness and do the people's business in a constructive way.

Many folks, including me, quite frankly, were disappointed that a few years ago Senator Landrieu filibustered and supported that filibuster of Miguel Estrada, another highly qualified judicial nominee, after she had expressed strong support of that very nomination in her reelection campaign.

This is an opportunity to set that record aside and do the right thing and give all of these judicial nominees a fair up-or-down vote. That is what the folks of Louisiana want: to do the people's business, to do our job, to vote and to address other important issues and to act honorably and bring fundamental fairness, proper American values, Louisiana values to this process.

We are beginning with a very important nomination to the people of Louisiana, Priscilla Owen of Texas. It is particularly important to my citizens of Louisiana because the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, to which Judge Owen is nominated, serves Louisiana, covers all of Louisiana. There has been a vacancy in that position for years and years.

Judge Owen has been nominated for over 4 years. Her nomination has been thoroughly vetted, thoroughly debated and, yet we have never had that closure. We have never had that fair up-or-down vote. In fact, the vacancy which she would fill has been declared a judicial emergency in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, impacting directly Louisiana because it has been open for so long.

So this is the perfect place to start for me, for Senator Landrieu, for those who are concerned about justice in the Fifth Circuit, taking care of that judicial emergency, and then we should move on and give all of these nominees a fair up-or-down vote.

Justice Owen has been maligned unfairly. All sorts of charges have been leveled against her, and I want to address some of those directly. She has been called fringe and out of the mainstream, way out of the mainstream of American opinion and everyday life. Yet if you take any serious look at the facts, that charge simply does not hold up.

Justice Owen has been on the Texas Supreme Court since 1994, but more significantly, when she was reelected to that position, she was reelected with 84 percent of the vote in Texas, with the endorsement of every major newspaper of the State and with bipartisan support.

Now, is every newspaper in the State fringe, out of the mainstream? Are 84 percent of Texas voters fringe and out of the mainstream? Obviously not.

In addition, in her nomination to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Owen gained the highest rating possible from the American Bar Association.

She was nominated on May 9, 2001, nearly 4 years ago, and renominated January 7, 2003, and February 14, 2005. Her qualifications have been vetted and debated exhaustively.

Owen has significant bipartisan support, including three former Democrat judges on the Texas Supreme Court and a bipartisan group of 15 past presidents of the State Bar of Texas.

Owen has been a justice on the Texas Supreme Court since 1994 and was endorsed for reelection by every major Texas newspaper.

Owen previously practiced commercial litigation for 17 years. She also has a substantial record of pro bono and community activity.

Owen received her undergraduate degree from Baylor University and graduated third in her class from Baylor Law School in 1977. She was a member of the law review and has been honored as Baylor Young Lawyer of the Year and as a Baylor University Outstanding Young Alumna.

After graduating from law school, Justice Owen received the highest score in the State on the Texas bar exam in December 1977.

The American Bar Association unanimously rated Justice Owen ``well qualified,'' its highest possible rating.

Some weeks ago, I also spoke on this floor in support of Justice Brown, whose nomination recently cleared the Judiciary Committee for the second time. The President nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit Court nearly 2 years ago. One-fourth of the DC Circuit is currently vacant; and Justice Brown's nomination has strong support.

As I noted before, during Justice Brown's 9-year-tenure on the California Supreme Court, she has acquired a reputation as a fair and intelligent justice who is committed to the rule of law. Justice Brown has served on the California Supreme Court since May 1996. Her appointment to that court was historic: Justice Brown is the first African-American woman ever to have served as an associate justice on the California Supreme Court.

Even more impressive, Justice Brown was recently returned to that court with the approval of 76 percent of California voters. In her retention election, Justice Brown had the highest vote percentage of all justices on the ballot.

Another sign of Brown's credibility is that, in 2002, she wrote more majority opinions than any of her colleagues on the California Supreme Court. As stated by a bipartisan group of Justice Brown's former judicial colleagues: ``she has quickly become one of the most prolific authors of majority opinions on the California Supreme Court.'' At least 12 judges have signed letters in support of her confirmation. Such numbers are indicators of the high esteem in which she is held by both the voting public in California and by her judicial colleagues.

I have heard arguments from some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle that Justice Brown should not be confirmed by this Chamber. One argument is that she supposedly abhors Government. Another argument is that she is supposedly hostile to civil rights. Such arguments are entirely without merit, and I would like to respond to this attack on Justice Brown.

While her critics charge that Justice Brown abhors Government, this nominee is hardly an extremist when it comes to Government. Indeed, as a longtime public servant, Justice Brown has been part of our Government for 25 years. She thinks there are many things Government does well, many things only Government can do; and she has criticized the unintended consequences of some of the things that Government does. In her judicial decisions, Justice Brown strives to apply the law as it exists and she defers to the legislature's judgment on how to solve many social or economic issues.

This nominee's judicial opinions suggest that she fully appreciates the importance of having Government play an active role in certain areas, including efforts to protect the public's health and safety. That is why she voted to uphold State health standards for labeling milk products. That is why she agreed that faucets, which might contain lead, should be considered a source of drinking water, under the Government's Safe Drinking Water Program. And that is why she agreed that her State's regulations regarding overtime pay should be liberally interpreted to provide California workers with more protection than they would have had under Federal law.

Her opponents also have insinuated that Justice Brown is hostile to civil rights. But Justice Brown has stated in her judicial opinions that ``discrimination on the basis of race is illegal, immoral, unconstitutional, inherently wrong, and destructive of democratic society.''

In writing for a unanimous court, Justice Brown struck down a certain minority aid program because it violated Proposition 209, a provision of the California constitution that bars discrimination against, or preferential treatment to, any individual group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting. Every judge in California who reviewed this program found it unconstitutional.

I find the argument that she is hostile to civil rights to be simply incredible, when you consider Justice Brown's personal history as an African-American who came of age in the South in the midst of Jim Crow laws. As someone who attended segregated schools, Justice Brown, better than anyone, can appreciate the importance of fighting discrimination. She grew up in Alabama, the daughter of sharecroppers, listening to her grandmother's stories about NAACP lawyer Fred Gray, who defended Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Her rise to the California Supreme Court from humble beginnings in the segregated South is absolutely inspiring. That may be why she has been sensitive to claims of racial profiling in cases where the facts strongly supported such an inference.

We all know that Justice Brown has risen to a prominent position on the California Supreme Court. But not everyone is aware of Justice Brown's record of activities on behalf of minorities, children, and the underprivileged. Let me take this opportunity to highlight a few such activities:

Justice Brown served as a member of the California Commission on the Status of African-American Males. The Commission made recommendations on how to address inequities in the treatment of African-American males in employment, business development, and the criminal justice and health care systems.

She served on the Governor's Child Support Task Force, which reviewed and made recommendations on how to improve California's child enforcement system.

While serving as a member of the Community Learning Advisory Board of the Rio Americano High School, Justice Brown developed a program to provide Government service internships to high school students in Sacramento, CA.

I close by citing a statement in support of Justice Brown by an executive director of Minorities in Law Enforcement: ``We recommend the confirmation of Justice Brown based on her broad range of experience, personal integrity, good standing in the community and dedication to public service..... Justice Brown is a fair and just person with impeccable honesty, which is the standard by which justice is carried out.''

In closing, I urge my colleagues to allow both Justice Brown and Justice Owen to have a vote on the Senate floor. Let Justice Brown's judicial qualifications, rather than her political philosophy, be our focus in her confirmation process.

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