Priscilla Owen: Corporate Hack

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The Times‘ Neil Lewis today chronicles the rise of Justice Priscilla Owen—one of the federal court nominees that Senate Democrats have promised to filibuster—noting the guiding hand of Rove in the background. It’s a good piece, but as with many pieces about Owen, the big controversy over her nomination seems to revolve around her abortion views. Those views are appalling, but as Mother Jones‘ Michael Scherer reported two years ago, it’s her business connections—and bought-and-paid-for proclivity to shill for corporations—that are truly troubling. Here’s Scherer’s description of the Rove and Owen tale:

The conflicts this created were on full display in the case of Priscilla Owen, now a Bush nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. When she first decided in the early 1990s that she wanted to run for a spot on the Texas Supreme Court, she called on Ralph Wayne, president of the Texas Civil Justice League, a trade group formed by the state’s manufacturing, transportation, and energy industries. “I said, ‘Have you talked to Karl Rove?'” Wayne remembers. “She said, ‘No, but I think I should.'”

After Rove met with Wayne and Owen, he signed on, giving the candidate the seal of approval from the state’s corporate establishment. The money followed. Owen raised $1.1 million for her successful 1994 state Supreme Court campaign, with a record 21 percent coming directly from the business community and much more coming from corporate defense lawyers. Judge Owen later repaid the favor, in part, by lending her endorsement to a Texas Civil Justice League fundraising appeal.

By the time Rove was done, the last Democrat had been purged from the Texas Supreme Court. “The cases all started getting decided anti-consumer, on the side of big business,” says Phil Hardberger, a retired Texas appellate court judge who is a Democrat. Jury verdicts, once embraced by the Democratic court, were now overturned or reduced. By the 1997-98 term, defendants were winning 69 percent of the time, and insurance companies, doctors, and pharmaceutical firms were winning nearly every case. Owen consistently distinguished herself as one of the conservative court’s most strident conservatives. In one decision, Owen argued unsuccessfully in support of a water-quality exemption tailored for an Austin land developer who had given $2,500 to her campaign. The court majority dismissed her contention as “nothing more than inflammatory rhetoric.”

Like I said, the abortion rhetoric gets all the attention, but it’s the business stuff that’s truly galling. Note that Karl Rove has worked hard to create a purely corporate judiciary in Texas, and now Republicans are trying to replicate his success on the national stage. And Owen is one of the worst of the bunch. That’s the main reason for filibustering her nomination: judges should uphold the rule of law, not the bottom line—and that’s a principle well worth going to unprecedented lengths to fight for.


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