Who is Priscilla Owen?

September 30, 2005

Justice O'Connor's swing vote may be replaced by Fifth Circuit Judge Priscilla Owen. Owen was confirmed by the Senate by a 56-43 margin following the deal allowing for votes on previously filibustered appellate court nominees. People for the American Way had urged the rejection of her nomination. She has been called "all too willing to bend the law to fit her views, rather than the reverse."

Judge Owen was elected to the Texas Supreme Court in 1994. Owen has consistently sought greater restrictions in parental notification cases, leaving her in dissent. As her colleague on that court, now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sharply differed from her jurisprudence on reproductive choice. He called her opinion in In re Jane Doe 1 (II) "an unconscionable act of judicial activism." Following another abortion rights case, the Houston Chronicle expressed its opposition to Owen's nomination to the Fifth Circuit:

Among the Texas Supreme Court's unanimous majority in this latest abortion case is Justice Priscilla Owen. The court's ruling in this case is exactly the sort of tortured jurisprudence that caused Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to reject President Bush's nomination of Owen to be a justice on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Texas may be saddled with justices who elevate partisan ideology above law and logic, but justice and reason should discourage their infliction on the nation.

The Alliance for Justice has detailed her votes to shield corporations from suits by consumers, taxpayers, and workers. In Universe Life Insurance Co. v. Giles, the majority upheld a damage award to a woman whose insurance company refused to pay for heart surgery. Owen voted to deny the damage award in a dissent the majority characterized as taking "the resolution of bad-faith disputes away from the juries that have been deciding bad faith cases for more than a decade."
Salon.com calls her handling of the case of Willie Searcy "unconscionable." As a justice of the Texas Supreme Court, she delayed for two years issuing a ruling on Ford's appeal of 14-year-old Searcy's case, in which a jury found Ford liable for manufacturing the defective seatbelt that led to the boy's quadriplegia. Searcy died as a result of inadequate medical care while waiting to collect his $30 million judgment. Prior to issuing her opinion, Owen received a campaign contribution of over $20,000 from Baker Botts, the law firm representing Ford.
Searcy's was not the only case for which Owen sat despite a potential conflict of interest. After receiving over $8000 in campaign contributions from Enron, Owen voted in Enron Corp. v. Spring Independent School District to allow Enron flexibility in calculating its inventory, which saved the company $15 million in taxes and cost a local school district tax revenue.