Friday, May 20, 2005

Nuke Texas Instead of the Senate

My good friend and colleague (we’ve neither met nor worked together) Joe Conason points out that the problem with Priscilla Owen isn’t her wildly out-of-the-mainstream point of view, it’s her appalling lack of ethics:

While much of the debate over the Owen nomination has focused on her opinion in a controversial abortion rights case -- in which her activist interpretation earned a scathing denunciation from none other than Alberto Gonzales, then her colleague on the Texas high court -- it is not her extremist ideology alone that should give senators pause. Equally disturbing is her involvement in the Lone Star State's "pay for play" judicial system, which is something she has in common with Gonzales.

Only a few states require nominees to their highest court to run for election -- and thus to raise enormous sums of money to pay for the cost of statewide campaigns. In Texas, where campaign fundraising taints so much of the political system, the state Supreme Court has suffered national ignominy for many years because of the confluence of corporate contributions and judicial decisions.

Naturally, George W. Bush chose to elevate the two members of that court who took the largest sums of campaign money from Texas business interests while he was governor -- Gonzales, who set the record, and Owen, who came in second.

Among the most notorious examples is a case in which Owen wrote the majority opinion that allowed Enron Corp. to escape more than $200,000 in school district taxes. In her 1994 campaign, she took $8,600 from the Houston energy firm and $31,550 from its lawyers at the powerhouse firm of Vinson & Elkins; her consultant Rove also worked for Enron. Two years later, when Spring Independent School District vs. Enron reached her court, she did not recuse herself from the case. Her opinion allowed Enron to choose its own method for valuation, cutting the taxable property assessment by millions of dollars.

So obnoxious was her conduct in the Enron case that it provoked the Houston Chronicle -- a newspaper that has enthusiastically endorsed Bush -- to urge the Senate to reject her nomination three years ago. While acknowledging that Democratic objections to Owen were hardly apolitical, the newspaper's editorial said the Democrats were also displaying "a rational desire to prevent the lifetime appointment of a justice who has shown a clear preference for ruling to achieve a particular result rather than impartially interpreting the law."

Owen's devotion to her business ideology and apparent sympathy toward her campaign contributions has often left her in the extremist minority, even on the right-tilting Texas bench. One of her better-known dissents came in a case that tested the constitutionality of a state law that had been written specifically to exempt a land developer from the city of Austin's water quality regulations.

Having taken $2,500 from that developer (and an additional $45,000 from the developer's law firm), Owen blasted her colleagues for violating the firm's "property rights," which included the right to foul the water supply in her view. The majority replied that her dissent was "nothing more than inflammatory rhetoric and thus merits no response."
When the Houston Chronicle calls you corrupt and the Texas Supreme Court calls you extremist – you got big problems. Joe successfully undercuts my previous let them win argument. It’s one thing for them to hit rock bottom. It’s quite another to let our country hit rock-rock bottom. They don’t call it "nuclear" for nothin’... I don't know what to think!

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