A Sunday school teacher who graduated among the top of her law school class but angered abortion rights advocates by wanting to make it harder for minors to terminate a pregnancy is at the center of the historic storm in the U.S. Senate over the future of the federal judiciary.
To President Bush and other supporters, Priscilla Owen is, in the president’s words, “a woman of integrity … known to be a fair and impartial judge who strives to interpret the law fairly.”
To her opponents, the 50-year-old Texas Supreme Court justice is a “judicial activist … (whose) record shows a bias in favor of government secrecy and business interests, and against the environment, victims of discrimination and medical malpractice,” in the words of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
With Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s decision this week to make Owen’s nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the test case in a separation of powers struggle, she also stands to become at least a footnote and perhaps a chapter in the nation’s history.
Through her nomination, the Senate is on a path toward deciding next week whether a minority party can block a president’s choice to fill a federal appeals court or Supreme Court vacancy with just 41 votes in the 100-member Senate, or whether a simple majority of 51 votes is all that is needed to confirm.
The scrutiny was not unexpected. But to Owen’s friends and associates, some of the rancor and hostility at the mere mention of her name has been a surprise.
“I’m used to the rough-and-tumble politics, but this thing, not allowing her on the federal bench because she’s some monster, is like so wrong,” said the Rev. Jeff Black, her pastor at St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Covenant Church in Austin. “We just get so upset because she simply is not like that at all, not even a little bit.
“She’s like the wonderful older sister or aunt” for some of the youngsters in her Sunday school class, Black said.
Until Bush nominated her four years ago to fill a vacancy on the New Orleans-based appeals court, Owen’s public life was unknown to most of the 300-member congregation. Black said everyone regarded her as “just somebody who worked downtown” and set up the church altar each Sunday.
The bruising political landscape is new to Owen, who easily won two elections to Texas’ highest civil appeals court in 1994 and 2000.
“She’s accepting it for what it is: hardball inside the Beltway,” said Roy Barrera Jr., her campaign treasurer when she ran for the Texas Supreme Court.
Owen was born in 1954 in Palacios, Texas, a small fishing and agriculture community on the Gulf of Mexico between Houston and Corpus Christi. Her father died of polio when she was 10 months old. Her mother remarried when she was 5, and they relocated to Waco, where her mother, two sisters and a brother still live. Her stepfather died in 1983.
Owen spent summers on her uncles’ farms on the coast, where she rode horses and cultivated a lifelong love of animals. One of her dogs died while she was in Washington meeting with Bush, and she confided to a friend that she was so grief-stricken she had difficulty focusing on their discussion.
In Waco, she was treasurer of her 1972 senior class at Richfield High School. She attended the University of Texas at Austin for a year before returning to Baylor University and graduating in 1977 in the top of her law school class. She had the highest score among those taking the bar exam, then took a job in 1978 at the Houston law firm Andrews Kurth.
There she gained expertise in oil and gas litigation, a traditionally male-dominated niche. Her skills in such inside-the-oilpatch areas as “take or pay contract litigation” and “downhole drilling failure litigation” earned her a partnership by 1985.
“She just has a way of speaking with a soft-spoken authority that makes people listen,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, who went to high school with her and worked with her at Andrews Kurth.
Although she had made small contributions to judicial candidates, she was apolitical, said Patrick Mizell, a former state district judge and friend of Owen’s who in 1987 was a law clerk at her firm.
Exactly how she got on the fast track to the Texas Supreme Court isn’t clear. Some say a friend in 1993 suggested she might run for it. “I think she kind of scoffed at it, then thought and decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Mizell said. “She jumped in with typical Priscilla fervency.”
Nathan Hecht, a Texas Supreme Court justice who also was running for re-election, said Owen called him for guidance. He suggested she talk to state GOP leaders, to then-Chief Justice Tom Phillips and then to Karl Rove, a political consultant and who went on to become Bush’s top political adviser.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Hecht said.
Court associates describe Owen as hardworking and analytical. Her opinions are personally written, and she heavily edits the drafts her staff writes. That’s a throwback to her law firm days, said Brister, who recalled staying up all night drafting a motion and “she would take it and change 80 percent.”
“She wrestles a problem down to the ground before she decides it,” said Phillips, who retired last year.
Not everything said about her has always been flattering. In the 2000 Texas Supreme Court case regarding the state’s parental notification law, Owen sided with a court minority that wanted to make it more difficult for minors to win judicial approval for an abortion without notifying their parents. She wrote that the majority had “manufactured reasons to justify its action” and “acted irresponsibly.”
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who also was on the Texas court then, criticized the dissenters for trying to insert personal ideologies and take the law beyond what was written by the state legislature.
“To construe the Parental Notification Act so narrowly as to eliminate bypasses, or to create hurdles that simply are not to be found in the words of the statute, would be an unconscionable act of judicial activism,” Gonzales wrote in the 2000 opinion.
Gonzales has said since that he wasn’t criticizing Owen, but Democrats continue to cite what he wrote five years ago in arguing their case against her.
Divorced, Owen lives alone in Austin, where her life revolves around her job, caring for her mother and her dog. She’s on the board of Texas Hearing & Service Dogs, a group that rescues dogs and trains them to help people with hearing and mobility impairments. She can be found occasionally on weekends on Lake Travis, where she has a ski boat.
Mizell said Owen doesn’t like the publicity from being the focus of a highly visible power struggle in Washington but is resolved to see the process through.
“She views this as the president asked her to do it and she wants to do it and is going to stick with it until somebody tells her she doesn’t need to any more,” he said.