WASHINGTON — President Bush’s pick for a federal appeals judgeship in Atlanta is drawing strong opposition from Jewish groups, including three organizations that usually refuse to take sides in judicial fights.
Officials at the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and American Jewish Congress said that they felt obligated to abandon their typical silence on judicial nominees, given what they described as the extremist views of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor. Those two groups have joined the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and many liberal nonsectarian organizations in opposing Pryor’s nomination.
In a party-line vote Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination. The nomination will now move to the Senate floor, where Democrats are expected to stage a filibuster if they can’t muster enough votes to defeat it.
A high-profile, outspoken elected official, the Alabama attorney general openly criticized the Supreme Court for upholding “the so-called wall of separation between church and state,” and criticized the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion, as “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.”
Such statements demonstrate that Pryor lacks “the temperament and evenhandedness required of a federal appellate judge,” said Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith International. Earlier this month the group sent a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asking them to vote down Pryor.
In response to criticisms of Pryor, the Orthodox Union fired off a letter to Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, chair of the judiciary committee, condemning other Jewish groups for breaking with the community’s “shared policy” of sitting out nomination debates. The O.U. also claimed that Pryor’s opponents were implying “that a person of faith cannot serve in a high level government post that may raise issues at odds with his or her personal beliefs.”
The ADL and B’nai B’rith also came under fire from Pryor supporter Irving Silver, an Alabama resident and volunteer leader in both organizations.
“I can personally attest that neither organization had made any effort to sit down and talk with Bill [Pryor] or give him the opportunity to address their concerns,” Silver wrote in a July 11 letter to Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and member of the judiciary committee.
The senior Jewish Republican in Congress, Specter voted for Pryor in committee, but said that he might switch sides when the nomination is taken up by the full Senate. No matter how he ends up voting, the decision is likely to cause political problems for Specter, who is facing a pro-life candidate in the primary and will likely face pro-choice Rep. Joe Hoeffel in the general election.
In his letter to Specter, Silver complained that ADL and B’nai B’rith were ignoring the opinions of Jewish leaders in Alabama. “In taking what they term as ‘principled’ positions opposing Bill,” Silver wrote, “I am fearful that in disregarding our support for Bill they are caught up in a condescending attitude toward their fellow Jews in the Deep South who know and interact on a daily basis with colleagues, friends and neighbors, like Bill, who are proud of their deep Christian faith and how it informs their life.”
Kenneth Jacobson, associate national director of the ADL, rejected the criticisms from Silver and the O.U.
“Our position has to do with his views on the issues and nothing to do with his religious faith,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson said that his organization had consulted with Silver and other Jewish communal leaders in Alabama who back Pryor before deciding to oppose the nomination.
“ADL always takes into account the opinions of the local communal leaders,” Jacobson said. “While those views are respected, they are not dispositive in our policy decision-making process.”
The Forward has learned that at least two other organizations — the American Jewish Committee and Hadassah — considered opposing Pryor’s nomination to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but decided to maintain their policy of sitting out judicial debates.
Officials with two Jewish groups said that a key factor in their deliberations was the fear that opposing Pryor, reportedly a friend of Bush’s, would hamper their access to the White House.
“This White House’s attitude is, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ and if you oppose them on one issue, you’re shut out,” said an official at one major Jewish organization, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And don’t forget: We have to work with [the administration] on other issues, such as Israel.”
This rationale for keeping quiet was slammed by Ellen Witman, co-director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women, which has been the only Jewish group to consistently oppose Bush’s judicial nominees. “At some point you have to stand up and make a decision,” Witman said. “Do you stand for what you say you’re for, or do you want to get invited to the White House?”
Pryor’s supporters argue that his critics distort his record to unjustifiably portray him as a zealot.
A report issued last week by The Committee for Justice, an organization that defends President Bush’s judicial nominees, argues that “Pryor has bucked intense political pressure, often from his own political party, in defense of the rule of law.”
Pryor’s supporters also point to the wide-scale support he enjoys among Alabama’s African-American leaders and to the fact that several senior Alabama Democrats, many fellow attorneys general and others in the legal community support him for the bench.
Unswayed by such endorsements, the women’s council in recent weeks has been focusing its attention on fighting the nomination of Pryor. At a rally six years ago in support of an Alabama judge who had posted the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and other public buildings, Pryor said: “God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians… to save our country and save our courts.”
Also in 1997, speaking to the graduating class of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Pryor declared: “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are rooted in a Christian perspective of the nature of government and the nature of man. The challenge of the next millennium will be to preserve the American experiment by restoring its Christian perspective.”
Pryor has strongly criticized the Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. “On January 22, 1973, seven members of [the] court swept aside the laws of the 50 states and created — out of thin air — a constitutional right to murder an unborn child,” Pryor said in 1997.
Kaplan, of B’nai B’rith, described Pryor’s views as “extraordinarily extreme.” Kaplan noted that it has been years since his organization took a public position on a judicial nominee — so long, in fact, that he could not remember when the last time was that it made such a move. “There comes a time when [a nominee] appears to be that extreme, that you’re compelled to take a position, even though it is not what you do in the normal course of events,” Kaplan said.
The judiciary committee was set to vote on the nomination last week but decided to wait a week to give members time to examine allegations regarding Pryor’s fundraising activities for the Republican Attorney Generals Association. During his June testimony, and in written answers to the committee, Pryor insisted he had not raised money from tobacco companies or from companies under investigation by his office. But Democrats contend that they have documents proving such solicitation, raising questions about whether Pryor was truthful in his testimony to the Senate.
Hadassah opted not to weigh in, noting that it historically has taken sides only on nominations to the Supreme Court. The last time it did so was in 1987, when the group opposed President Reagan’s choice of Robert Bork. But Hadassah is reassessing its policy against taking positions on lower court nominations, said the organization’s director of American affairs and domestic policy, Shelley Klein.
Witman argued that concerned Jewish groups should speak up now rather than wait for a Supreme Court battle down the road.
“We have never been in a time like [this] before, when judicial nominees are so antithetical to the substance that Jewish organizations stand for,” Witman said. “ So what if you haven’t done it before?”