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The Judicial Nominees Behind the Filibuster Fight

A confrontation over judicial filibusters could take place as early as next week, when senators return from a weeklong break. A look at the records of the two conservative judges -- Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown -- whose re-nominations may trigger a Senate showdown.

About Brown and Owen

Janice Rogers Brown, 55, a native of Greenville, Ala., has been a California Supreme Court justice since 1996. She has been renominated to serve on the influential federal appeals court in the District of Columbia.

The daughter of sharecroppers, raised in the segregated South, Brown moved to California with her family, and as a single mother, worked her way through law school. But in more than 10 years on the bench, she's also been a lightning rod for controversy. Nominated to the state Supreme Court by a Republican governor, she got the job despite being found unqualified by the state Judicial Evaluation Committee and the state bar. Once on the court, she was often the lone dissenter, though she sat with six other Republican appointees and only one Democratic appointee, and when Brown was named to the federal appeals court, the American Bar Association gave her its lowest passing grade, a split qualified-unqualified rating.

Republicans say as a woman, Brown shattered glass ceilings. Her defenders point out that she was re-elected to the California Supreme Court without opposition. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch says Brown wrote most of the majority opinions on that court, "and yet, she's called an extremist, because she's a conservative African American."

But opponents point to Brown's public comments blasting the government's intervention in private lives. Brown's home state Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, cited Brown's claim that "where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates," all of which Brown said would lead to "families under siege, war in the streets, unapologetic expropriation of property [and] the precipitous decline of the rule of law."

At her confirmation hearing, Brown defended her "very straightforward" way of speaking, adding: "I'm very candid and sometimes I'm passionately devoted to the ideals on which I think this country is founded."

Priscilla Owen, 50, a native of Palacios, Texas, has been on the Texas Supreme Court since 1995. Owen, whom President Bush nominated to the New Orleans-based federal appeals court, got a well-qualified rating from the American Bar Association as well as the highest score on the Texas bar exam.

In Texas, Owen was a protégé of political strategist Karl Rove, who initially recruited her to run for the state Supreme Court and subsequently was paid some $250,000 for running her campaign.

When Rove moved to the White House as President Bush's chief political strategist, he once again sought to promote his protégé, this time for a seat on a federal appeals court. One of the men who had served with Owen on the Texas Supreme Court was also in the White House -- the president's chief counsel Alberto Gonzales (now the U.S. attorney general). Gonzales backed another more moderate Republican from the Texas high court. In the end, according to published reports, the more moderate candidate was told she was vetoed because of her judicial votes on abortion and Owen got the nod. At Owen's confirmation hearing, Democrats portrayed her record as hostile to abortion rights.

Democrats conceded that Owen may be the first nominee with a high ABA rating to be rejected. But they noted that 10 of President Clinton's appeals court nominees with identical ratings never even got a hearing at all.

At her confirmation hearing, Owen was questioned about a ruling in which she threw out a $50,000 jury award to a family who charged that an insurance company had acted in bad faith by refusing to pay the medical bills for surgery the company had approved in advance.

"Your invalidation of the trial verdict completely threw out their entire award," Sen. Feinstein told Owen at her confirmation hearing. "The law is there for little people."

Owen replied: "There are a lot of cases that come before our court that I think tug at all of our heartstrings. But, again, I have committed and have got to apply the law."

Nina Totenberg contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.