Battle Over Judicial Nominees, Filibuster Heats Up in Senate

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The battle over the filibuster continues to heat up in the U.S senate as the nomination of Texas Supreme Court justice Priscilla Owen comes under debate. Racial politics also entered the debate over the nomination of Janice Brown. We speak with Christy Harvey of the Center for American Progress and Jeffrey Johnson of People For The American Way. [includes rush transcript]

The battle over the filibuster continues to heat up in the U.S senate. Yesterday, the Senate opened what was expected to be several days of debate on the nomination of Priscilla Owen–a Texas Supreme Court justice Bush first nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals four years ago. Republicans have been threatening to change the rules of the Senate in order to bar Democrats from using a filibuster to block a vote on Bush’s judicial nominees. They have charged that Democrats are abusing the rule to block ten of the president’s nominees to the federal bench. But the Democrats have countered that the minority party has a right to prevent votes on a president’s judicial candidates. Yesterday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid accused Bush of trying to “re-write the Constitution and reinvent reality” in order to install ultra-conservatives on the federal bench.

Racial politics took center-stage yesterday as well. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist attended a news conference with an organization of conservative African-American pastors who called for a yes-or no-vote on African-American judicial nominee Janice Rogers Brown. The Congressional Black Caucus also held a news conference where they released a letter to Senate Majority leader Bill Frist arguing that his call for a ban on judicial filibusters “would be particularly offensive to people of color.” The chairman of the caucus, Representative Melvin Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, recalled the time when Southern senators used the same parliamentary tactic, the filibuster, to block civil rights laws. He said, “how ironic it would be to allow a rule change that would once again thwart progress of African-Americans.”

The Senate was been negotiating a compromise that would allow the confirmation of some of Bush’s nominees. If no compromise is reached, Frist is preparing to introduce the ban against the filibuster next week. Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid has promised to retaliate by blocking Republican legislation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two guests in Washington, D.C. Jeff Johnson is a National Director of African American Outreach for People for the American Way. Christy Harvey is Director of Strategic Communications at the Center for American Progress. She’s also editor of The Progress Report. We’re going to begin by talking about the nominees. Let’s begin with you, Christy Harvey. The issue of, first, Priscilla Owen. Can you talk about her significance?

CHRISTY HARVEY: Absolutely. Priscilla Owen is being painted as a nice woman, a Sunday school teacher, and they’re saying that the left and democrats are trying to block her because of her anti-abortion stance. And actually, that’s just not true. In the case of the former, it’s great that she’s a Sunday school teacher, but she’s not nominated to be a federal Sunday school teacher. She’s nominated to be a federal judge. And so it’s her judicial record that we need to look at. And it’s way too easy to bring abortion into this. People’s emotions get stirred up, but that’s not the reason people are against her. People are against her because she’s an activist radical judge with a conservative agenda that she’s trying to push onto the courts. And she has a record of twisting laws and twisting her opinions to try and change the laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about her record with business? Looking at one report, People for the American way, they said even Alberto Gonzales, well, now the Attorney General, but at the time in Texas, raised concerns.

CHRISTY HARVEY: Absolutely. They usually say the customer is always right, but unfortunately, Judge Owen gets that backwards. And in her court, the customer, the victim, the consumer is always wrong. Since 1994, when she took her spot on the Texas Supreme Court, in every single decision that came down in favor of businesses or corporations, she was on the majority. There were 86 decisions in favor of consumers; in those, 22 times she was — dissented and also came out for businesses and corporations. And you see it down the line. She took a lot of money from different corporations while she was hearing cases that involved them. There was the case of Enron. Enron was up against a school district over a tax issue and gave three different court justices in Texas money that year, thousands of dollars, and lo and behold, when the decision came down, they ruled for Enron and against the school district, losing the school district thousands of dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: This was in their campaigns?

CHRISTY HARVEY: Yes. This was in her campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Giving them money.

CHRISTY HARVEY: Giving them money, exactly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Jeffrey Johnson, just what is at stake in this battle over Owen and the other judicial nominees? Some people have claimed that this is basically an be internal battle over procedures in the Senate and that most Americans are not paying attention. Do you believe that, and what is your perspective on what’s at stake here?

JEFFREY JOHNSON: Well, one, I absolutely don’t believe it. I think that it’s evident in the last week, we have seen elderly people, we have seen African American ministers, we have seen faith people. I led with People for the American Way and the Hip-Hop Caucus, a group of hip-hop activists, on the Hill to say save the filibuster, one, and then vote no on Janice Rogers Brown. So I think while what we are seeing on C-SPAN is clearly an internal argument and debate, a party debate about a mechanism within the Senate, we clearly understand that the mechanism is a representation of justice.

We understand that the filibuster has been that voice of the minority for over 200 years. And how interesting it is that it’s the very people that call themselves conservatives that are making the radical moves to remove this mechanism that has meant so much to even themselves. I think without taking into consideration the implications that 30 years from now they really don’t want to be — I can’t really imagine that any senator would want to be part — have part of their legacy someone that removed this as a mechanism in the Senate when 30 years from now, when they don’t have absolute power and are in need of this mechanism again, to have their voice heard.

So all of that to say, no, I don’t think that this is just a political maneuver. I don’t think it’s just an internal conversation. I think that it speaks to justice. I think that it speaks to upholding the Constitution. I think it speaks to the very fabric of what the founding fathers wanted to see take place in insuring that not only the voice of power was heard, but the voice of the minority was heard, and even beyond that, we clearly understand that Owen and Rogers Brown, just being two of the nominees, in my mind, are simply conjoined twins that were separated at one point in time, but have the very same philosophies, the very same kind of extreme justice, activist. And Rogers Brown, in particular, I think, as my colleague here has talked about Owen, Rogers Brown is being painted in the same kind of light, the daughter of a sharecropper, pulled herself up by the bootstraps to go to school, was a leader in the law community and now is doing all she can to turn back the time on the very civil liberties and rights that so many have fought for.

Even more than that, I think history is repeating itself, because we saw the same thing with Clarence Thomas. And I don’t know what the rest of the world is saying, but I know that the young people that I work with and the young people that I represent are saying they don’t need another Clarence Thomas.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Speaking about the issue of civil liberties and Judge Janice Rogers Brown, Nat Hentoff as an article in this week’s Village Voice, and he is known for his stands on civil liberties. He claims that at least in the case of Judge Rogers Brown that people have not thoroughly investigated her record. He cites a number cases where he believes that she has been in opposition to the death penalty, against police racial profiling of African Americans, and against illegal searches and seizures. And he thinks that, at least in her case, that she’s has been painted with a brush that’s not totally accurate. Your response to that?

JEFFREY JOHNSON: This is simultaneously a woman that said that Social Security is the elderly cannibalizing their young. This is the same individual that believes that property rights are above and beyond people’s personal rights. This is the same individual that goes against — has been almost in every case in the minority in the California Supreme Court, because of how extreme her views are as it relates to — and don’t get me wrong, I think that her position across the board is extreme. We have to also remember we’re not painting a broad brush when this was the same person that was put up before and denied access to the bench. And so, I understand where he may be coming from, but I think he’s the one that needs to be a little bit more critical in his analysis of her record. Anybody that’s interested can always go to the People for the American Way website, where we list in her own words the very things that she said. So, I think that those that are critical would understand that she is on the extreme, that she does not represent true justice and I think, as has already been mentioned, is not attempting to interpret the law, but is attempting to define the law.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Jeff Johnson, People for the American Way; Christy Harvey with the Center for America Progress, co-editor of The Progress Report. And the whole issue, Jeff Johnson, of the racial politics now being brought in, Dr. Frist, the Senate Majority Leader, talking about bringing in this group, having a news conference yesterday, and then the Congressional Black Caucus responding. And why has the hip-hop community gotten involved?

JEFFREY JOHNSON: Well, first and foremost, I think we have to very honest that the right has been engaging the black faith community for some time now, and under the Bush administration, there has a deliberate attempt to co-opt black churches, understanding the role that the African American church has played in the progressive movement for the last 40-plus years. And so, whether it’s been through faith-based initiatives or incentives, or just checks written under the table, there have been African American preachers that have been co-opted, especially in urban centers, to move away from the very social justice and civil liberties work that’s the foundation of the black church to do work that represents that which the Republican Party is interested in doing. That’s one.

Secondly, we understand that — and you ask why hip-hop is involved. Hip-hop is involved because young people care about the issues. We saw over the course of this last election that young people in a major way began to assert their voice. And we saw an increase of over 4% of the turnout of young voters. That was not just a fluke or hype that came as a result of Russell Simmons or Puff Daddy doing huge air campaigns. But it came as a result of young people being tremendously frustrated with what they see going on in the country. And as it related to the filibuster, young people saying that while this is an issue that traditionally young people may not even be asked about, that hip-hop may be absent from, they understand their responsibility in representing their own community and demographic in voicing their concern, and so, it was essential for them to be a part of this discussion and saying that the filibuster is necessary and saying that 200-year tradition should be upheld under the Constitution, should be honored, and beginning to voice their concern about Justices that clearly do not represent them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Christy Harvey, for those listeners who want to know how they can get involved or what they can do in the coming days as this debate develops in the Senate, what can they do?

CHRISTY HARVEY: There are plenty of ways to get involved. We at the Center for American Progress have a couple of action items on our website. ways to contact your senator tell them to stand firm, to keep blocking these radical activist judges that want to put their own stamp on the laws instead of upholding the laws that exist. We also have some action items to tell your senators to work hard to stop Bill Frist and his cronies from putting through this nuclear option, which will upend the way the Senate’s worked. My colleague, Jeff’s group, People for the American Way, have a lot of great ways to get involved. They also have a lot of information about both of these judges. So there’s a lot of ways —

AMY GOODMAN: Your websites are?


AMY GOODMAN: Your websites are?

CHRISTY HARVEY: Our website is And I believe Jeff’s is

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Jeff Johnson, National Director of African American [Outreach] at People for the American Way. Christy Harvey of the Center for American Progress.

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