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IDEOLOGUES VS. JUSTICE OWEN



Published: Thu, August 22, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



IDEOLOGUES VS. JUSTICE OWEN

Chicago Tribune: At least since the 1987 battle over Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, judicial appointments have been a major arena for conflict in Washington. It doesn't matter if the White House is in Republican hands and the Senate under Democratic control, or the other way around: Whenever a nominee can be tarred as extreme, unethical or incompetent, ideologues paint the most appalling picture in the hope of killing the appointment.

It's not a good way to find the truth or to select good judges. Instead, it fosters irresponsible distortion and discourages strong-minded individuals from accepting judicial posts, while rewarding lawyers whose chief talent is never doing anything, good or bad, to make enemies.

The latest fight is over Priscilla Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice chosen by President Bush for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. She got the highest rating from the American Bar Association. To get that endorsement, says the ABA, a nominee "must be at the top of the legal profession in his or her legal community, have outstanding legal ability, breadth of experience, the highest reputation for integrity and either have demonstrated, or exhibited the capacity for, judicial temperament."

'Judicial activism'

You'd never guess any of these qualities from the attacks on Owen. Senate Democrats and liberal activists have denounced her as a right-wing ideologue and a lap dog for big corporations, particularly Enron. Their favorite evidence is a quotation from fellow Justice Alberto Gonzales, now White House counsel, accusing her of "an unconscionable act of judicial activism" in voting to deny a minor permission to get an abortion without her parents' knowledge.

But judges accuse each other of judicial activism all the time. It's safe to assume that if Gonzales distrusted Owen's instincts, he would have lobbied his boss not to choose her. Today, he says, "She will exercise judicial restraint and understands the limited role of the judiciary."

In the abortion case they disagreed about the application of a Texas law that generally requires parents to be notified. Owen, dissenting from the court's decision to grant permission, made a perfectly rational case that the majority was reading the law too liberally.

As for her views about corporations, it's not surprising that a candidate picked by a conservative president has not been hostile to private business. It's true that, in running for the office, she got campaign contributions from Enron employees and then sat on cases involving the company. But people associated with Enron gave to lots of political candidates, and Owen didn't violate any ethics rules.

Owen is just one of many Bush nominees who have been inexcusably blocked from filling vacant seats on the bench -- something that also happened, with equal lack of justification, to many of President Clinton's appointees.

But the only real argument against her is that she's not the sort of choice a Democratic president would make. That's no reason Bush shouldn't have picked her, or that the Senate shouldn't confirm her.

SUMMER OF ELVIS

Washington Post: He was, and is, possibly the most famous stand-alone first name in history -- not counting the ones credited with founding a major organized religion. Which isn't to say that Elvis Presley got anything like deity treatment on the anniversary of his death this month. "Twenty-five years ago," began a CNN program marking the occasion, "an aging singer with more then 10 different pharmaceutical drugs in his bloodstream had a heart attack, fell to the bathroom floor and entered history."

Actually, he had entered it some time before, with his appearances on Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show, which in those days of only three networks seemed to be watched by the entire country. Elvis did some path-breaking gyrations there -- triggering a generation's worth of earnest theorizing on the nation's socio-sexual perturbations -- but looking back on the old TV clips, what's most striking now is how nice he seemed, at least when he finished a number and stopped swiveling: like a fresh-faced, respectful kid just off the Greyhound to start a job at the shoe store.

Unmemorable movies

Not long after the Sullivan shows, he went into the Army, as was expected of healthy young men at the time, then made an endless number of hit records -- most of which wouldn't offend anybody -- and turned out several dozen unmemorable movies that would not, as we recall, merit even a PG-13.

He died young, but not quite young enough to escape the temptations of aging show business figures in general and Las Vegas entertainers in particular. His excesses made him a figure of fun to some in his final years, but today record companies are doing him the posthumous honor of trying to exploit his talents once again. To judge by the attention paid during this month's anniversary, Elvis is likely to be re-entering history every now and then for some time to come. And while his life and death contain elements of tragedy, there is this to be thankful for: He is not, at age 67, struggling to belt out "Blue Suede Shoes" on one of those public TV fund-raising specials.




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