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Thumbs Down For Bush Judicial Pick

Majority Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee thwarted Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen's nomination to a federal appeals court seat Thursday. An outraged President Bush called the vote "bad for the country."

With a solid Democratic wall of opposition, Owen's nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was defeated on a 10-9 vote. She needed the support of at least one Democrat on the panel for her nomination to move on to the full Senate.

Mr. Bush, who has been trying to place more conservative jurists on the federal bench, got word of it while on a fund-raising trip in the South.

During an appearance in Louisville, Ky., he said the defeat of Owen "is bad for the country, it's bad for our bench and I don't appreciate it one bit, and neither do the American people."

"She's highly respected by Republicans and Democrats," Mr. Bush said. "A handful of senators distorted her record. A handful of senators, acting out of pure politics, did not let this good woman's name go forward."

It was the second major defeat for a Bush judgeship nominee, and Senate Republicans threatened retaliation against Democrats. The same committee last March defeated U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi, who also had been nominated to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Democrats contended that Owen, 47, has been an anti-abortion and pro-business judicial activist whose opinions and rulings were overly influenced by her personal beliefs. The rejection was also a message to Mr. Bush not to send any more of what they called "extreme right-wing" judicial nominees to the committee, they said.

"I would hope that if there's any lesson in here for the White House (it is) that we have no objection to conservative Republicans, but ideologues are not going to make it," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

"The message is this: We will confirm qualified judges," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "Don't send us unqualified people."

In Louisville, Ky., where Mr. Bush was making a speech and fund-raising appearance, spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The president is very disappointed in the Senate's action on a partisan basis that denied a qualified jurist the chance to serve the country."

"The nation's judicial emergency has just grown worse," Fleischer said.

Owen is the first judicial nominee that was rated unanimously "well-qualified" by the American Bar Association to be rejected on a vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

After rejecting Owen, the committee then sent to the Senate the nomination of Reena Raggi, who wants a seat on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She is a former New York U.S. attorney, and has served as a U.S. District Court judge in New York since her nomination by President Reagan in 1987.

The 2nd Circuit, based in New York City, covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

Judiciary Democrats said that Raggi is a mainstream Republican, unlike Owen, so they had no problem with her nomination.

Owens had controversial rulings in cases involving Texas' parental notification law requiring that parents be informed first before an abortion is performed on a minor. Those decisions have drawn criticism, even from Bush's own general counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who served with her on the Texas court.

Asked whether the Gonzales criticism had played a role in Owens' defeat, Fleischer said: "This was a case of partisanship. This was a case of a committee killing a nominee's chances because the votes were there on the floor."

He declined to say whether this second defeat for a Bush judicial nominee would alter the president's future nominations.

Opponents also have pointed to the $8,600 in campaign contributions she accepted from now-bankrupt Enron Corp. of Houston and a majority opinion that she wrote two years later reducing Enron's taxes.

Owen told senators in July that she has been wrongly portrayed and that, in nearly 900 cases, she dissented from the majority opinion less than 10 percent of the time. "My personal beliefs don't enter into any of my decisions," she said.

Republicans accused her critics of distorting her record and cited her academic credentials and highly favorable ratings from the American Bar Association.

"The Senate would confirm her, no doubt in my mind," said Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, accusing Democrats of applying "a very narrow litmus test. ... They're carrying it out in its worst form."

Lott predicted that the vote will only increase disharmony in a Senate where Democrats enjoy a working majority of only one vote.

"It will make our ability to work together here in the Senate very difficult for quite some time," he said.

The same committee last March by an identical party-line vote, rejected the nomination of Lott's friend Pickering after women's, civil rights and liberal groups mounted a campaign against him. Pickering also was nominated for 5th Circuit, which covers Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.

Judiciary Republicans said they will likely retaliate in the future for the second party line defeat for a GOP nominee. "It is important to remember in the Senate that what goes around comes around," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ken.

Added Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.: "If this is the way judges are going to be picked in the future, we're going to have to take note of that."

Since Mr. Bush took office, the Senate has confirmed 73 of his judicial nominees, 13 of them for appeals court seats and 60 as federal district judges. But 40 of the president's nominees have yet to get a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.