Politics & Policy

Pryor’s Restraint

What does the Left have against the Alabama AG?

The radical Left is attempting some Pryor restraint by trying to hamstring a new federal judicial nomination before it even comes close to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. But their target, brilliant Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, is the very model of a public official willing to restrain his own political impulses in order to follow existing law.

The degree to which the Left sees Pryor as a threat is evidenced by the scorching editorial the Washington Post ran against the 41-year-old Pryor on April 11, just two days after President Bush officially nominated the Alabama official for a position on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

#ad#Heretofore, the Post has been a paragon of liberal reasonableness on judicial nominations, famously taking Senate Democrats to task, in unsparing terms, for their baseless opposition to the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Pryor’s case, however, the Post oddly jumped in with guns blazing, as if trying to make up to the Left for the paper’s earlier apostasy from liberal lockstep.

“Mr. Pryor is a parody of what Democrats imagine Mr. Bush to be plotting for the federal courts,” wrote the Post. It called Pryor “a zealous advocate of relaxing the wall between church and state” who “has vocally defended Alabama’s chief justice, who has insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments in state court facilities. But his career is broader. He has urged the repeal of a key section of the Voting Rights Act. … Mr. Pryor’s speeches display a disturbingly politicized view of the role of the courts. … This is not a nomination the White House can sell as above politics. Mr. Bush cannot at once ask for apolitical consideration of his nominees and put forth nominees who, in word and deed, turn federal courts into political battlegrounds.”

The truth is that the Post’s editorial is a parody of what conservatives know to be the Left’s character-assassination machine.

The truth is that Pryor is the kind of solid conservative who shows great deference and humility towards other branches of government and to higher courts, sometimes at cost both to his own political preferences and to his popular standing. One friend of mine in Louisiana, well to the political Left, attended college and law school for seven years with Pryor, a top student who was editor-in-chief of the Tulane Law Review. My friend recalls never once having agreed with Pryor on a public-policy issue — yet still maintains that Pryor “doesn’t have a political bone in his body.”

When Pryor was gearing up last year for his race for reelection as state AG, Republican District Attorney David Whetstone of Baldwin County announced a primary challenge. His campaign, he announced, would be based on the idea that Pryor had not been Republican enough, siding at times with Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman or other Democratic interests over Republican party legal positions. (Whetstone later switched to an eventually losing race for Congress.)

As for the aforementioned state chief justice of “Ten Commandments” fame, the grandstanding and quirky Roy Moore, Pryor actually appeared in campaign commercials for Moore’s GOP primary opponent, a far more mainstream jurist named Harold See.

Pryor also publicly opposed an extreme states-rights position, related to Judge Moore’s Ten Commandments display, that had been advocated by the Republican governor, Fob James, even though it was James who first appointed Pryor to be attorney general (when Jeff Sessions was elected as U.S. senator).

And while in last year’s disputed, razor-thin race for governor in Alabama, Pryor famously issued several official opinions helpful to the cause of the Republican eventual victor, Bob Riley, he also intervened against one of the Riley team’s legal filings, to the benefit of Siegelman.

It’s true that Pryor, a devout Catholic, is an outspoken believer in the sanctity of life. Devout personal religious belief, however, still isn’t an official disqualifier for a potential judge.

But whereas other nominees such as Estrada can merely pledge to follow higher-court precedent on abortion cases, Pryor actually has a record of doing so. In 1997, the Alabama legislature passed a sweeping law against partial-birth abortions that banned the procedure not only after fetal viability, but also before viability. Despite intense pressure from legislators to enforce the act in its entirety, Pryor ordered state prosecutors not to enforce the pre-viability ban because it contradicted clear U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

And when the Supremes issued their misguided Stenberg ruling further limiting states’ abilities to restrict partial-birth abortions, Pryor (with teeth surely well-clenched in frustration) told state officials that they “are obligated to obey [Stenberg] until it is overruled or otherwise set aside.”

Meanwhile, Pryor is well known for his “compassionate” political and personal sides — as the creator of a novel program to encourage victims of domestic violence to seek help, as a member of the Penelope House (a battered women’s shelter) Hall of Fame, and as the creator of a statewide youth mentorship program.

Most (perhaps all) black leaders in Alabama also support Pryor’s nomination to the 11th Circuit. That’s true of the state’s lone black congressmen, Democrat Artur Davis, and of the longtime major-domo of the state’s top black Democratic organization, former Montgomery City Councilman Joe Reed. Reed said Pryor as judge “will uphold the law without fear or favor.”

The Democrat Pryor barely defeated to maintain the AG post in 1998, Terry Butts, also supports the nomination with strong enthusiasm — as does former Democratic Attorney General Bill Baxley, who said Pryor always acts “without race, gender, age, political power, wealth, community standing, or any other competing interest affecting his judgment.”

The simple fact is that just about everybody who comes in contact with Bill Pryor is struck by his earnestness, his intelligence, his decency, and his lack of guile.

How politically guileless? In all my years as a journalist or as a political press secretary, I’ve never seen an elected official go off the record to say things that would be more popular with voters than his official position, but less popular with the reporters who were his only audience. Except for Pryor, who I’ve seen do it more than once (when pressed to do so by editors). The distinction he made is that what was on the record was his official position on the purely legal issues involved, in his role as the state’s top law-enforcement officer. What was off the record was his personal policy preference, which tracked the voting public’s views but was at odds with what he saw as his legal duty.

And no, the issues weren’t abortion-related.

With such a record, the question is not only why the Post and the hard Left should oppose such an apolitical, deferential nominee, but why conservatives should rally behind Pryor.

The answer for conservatives is exactly because Pryor is apolitical and deferential. Yes, he’s undeniably a strict constructionist — and he’ll argue when appropriate that higher courts, or individual judges, have left the Constitution’s text far behind. But, because he lacks the authority to overturn an error by the Supremes, he’ll let the justices find their own way out of the logical and legal blind alleys into which they run in search of ever-dimmer penumbras. The Waterford clarity of his legal opinions, even ones nominally upholding higher-court inanities, will stand as ample rebuke for their nonsense.

But he won’t give the Left any quarter if they want to sneak some cockamamie, extra-constitutional theory through the 11th Circuit. What drives the Left batty about Pryor is that when his duties do allow him room to speak out, he does so in words made all the more sharp by their contrast with his soft voice.

For instance, consider the supposedly “key section” of the Voting Rights Act that the Post criticizes him for opposing. Pryor aptly called it “an affront to federalism and an expensive burden.” No, Pryor hasn’t criticized the whole act — other sections of which he has actually defended against Republican challenges based on temporary political advantages that would accrue — but just one section.

That section still requires Justice Department “pre-clearance” of any change in voting procedures in southern states most guilty of long-ago Jim Crowism. Nearly 30 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the southern states are still adjudged guilty of maliciously racist intent until proven innocent. Even changes as minor as moving polling locations must negotiate a bureaucratic maze in Washington. Entire elections have been delayed, perfectly legitimate redistricting plans (later approved by all parties) have tied states in lengthy court battles and their voters in confusion, and state taxpayers have been burdened with asinine legal bills, all because southern states can’t run elections without the Justice Department mucking up the works through seemingly endless, baseless delays.

Indeed, Attorney General Thurbert Baker of Georgia, who is black, has taken a similar anti-pre-clearance position in a voting rights case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the chief legal officer of a state continually burdened by pre-clearance hassles, Bill Pryor is as duty-bound to make a case against the pre-clearance provision as he is duty-bound to enforce it. The Post, not Pryor, mis-portrays the dividing line between politics and legal duty if it is to oppose the Alabama AG’s nomination because of his public advocacy for Alabama’s interests.

If Pryor had refused to enforce the pre-clearance provision, that would be disqualifying. That he enforces it while complaining about it shows an ability desperately needed in judges, that of separating one’s personal opinions from the written law.

In sum, Bill Pryor is so far from the caricature painted by the Washington Post editorial that the Post’s description of him would make him virtually unrecognizable to Alabamians of all political stripes who have watched him in office for more than six years.

There’s no doubt that as a U.S. senator, Pryor would write conservative laws. But there’s also no doubt that as a judge, he would exercise no will of his own other than that the existing laws be faithfully applied.

Quin Hillyer is a national award-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register.

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