Wednesday, July 23, 2003

A judicial confirmation hearing yesterday turned into a rancorous debate between Democrats and Republicans over whether it’s possible for a devout Catholic to be confirmed to the federal bench.

Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor, a Catholic and President Bush’s nominee to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, eventually was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote over the strident protests of Democrats.

Republicans plan to press for a vote on final confirmation later this week by the full Senate, where Mr. Pryor almost certainly will face a filibuster, unless Democrats can garner the votes needed to kill the nomination outright.

One Republican on the judiciary panel, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, agreed to send Mr. Pryor’s nomination out of the committee but said he may vote against the nominee’s confirmation on the Senate floor.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and leader of the Pryor defense team, attacked committee Democrats for holding against Mr. Pryor his opposition to abortion “even in the case of rape and incest.”

“Let me tell you, the doctrine that abortion is not justified for rape and incest is Catholic doctrine,” Mr. Sessions said. “It’s the position of the pope, and it’s the position of the Catholic Church.

“Are we saying that if you believe in that principle, you can’t be a federal judge?” Mr. Sessions said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and a pro-choice Catholic, responded, “As a person who was raised Catholic and is a practicing Catholic, I deeply resent this new line of attack from the right wing that anyone who opposes William Pryor is guilty of discrimination against him because he is a Catholic.”

“There are many Catholics who see this nomination much differently than those who support Mr. Pryor,” he said. “Many Catholics who oppose abortion personally do not believe the laws of the land should prohibit abortion for all others in extreme cases involving rape, incest and the life and health of the mother.”

Mr. Durbin also told Mr. Sessions that Mr. Pryor’s faithful adherence to Catholic doctrine is questionable.

“The Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty,” Mr. Durbin said. “Pryor is in favor of it. I’m not going to ask Senator Sessions to make a judgment as a Methodist whether that makes him a good Catholic or not.”

The volley was the most pointed exchange yet over a growing belief among some Republicans that Democrats are filibustering or otherwise sidetracking several of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees whose religion dictates that they be opposed to abortion rights. Democrats insist that their opposition stems from the nominees’ views on specific issues and is entirely unrelated to religion.

“I’m concerned we are reaching a point where a judicial nominee with deeply held religious views may be prevented from serving as a federal judge,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and committee chairman. “That’s just not right.”

Those fears materialized earlier this week in a printed political advertisement produced by Pryor supporters working in concert with Senate Republicans.

The ad features a picture of shuttered courthouse doors with a sign that reads: “Catholics need not apply.” The text accuses Democratic senators of “attacking Bill Pryor for having ‘deeply held’ Catholic beliefs to prevent him from becoming a federal judge” and urges them to put Mr. Pryor’s “religion aside and give him an up or down vote.”

The ads ran in Maine and Rhode Island, targeting three Republicans who party leaders worry might defect and vote with the Democrats against the nomination.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the ads were “tawdry” and “diabolical.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member on the committee, called the ads and the sentiments behind them “the most serious I’ve seen in 29 years in the United States Senate.”

“It is despicable,” he said. “It is contemptible. It goes back to a darker time.”

While Mr. Pryor’s views about abortion were clear during his previous hearings, Mr. Leahy and others pointed out that the nominee’s religious identification did not explicitly emerge until Mr. Hatch asked him about it directly.

“You were the one who raised it,” said Mr. Leahy, pointing at Mr. Hatch, who was seated directly beside him. “This is ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”

During the more than 2 hours of arguments, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was seated in a holding room off the committee hearing room, waiting to testify about developments in the war on terrorism.

In the final moments before the vote, Democrats employed a rarely used parliamentary procedure to block the vote, which led to more last-minute fireworks.

In the end, Mr. Hatch overruled the objections and the Democrats lodged nine votes protesting the vote, as well as the nomination of Mr. Pryor. The 10 Republicans on the panel voted to send the nomination to the Senate floor.

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