May 13, 2005

Open Letter to Ohio Senators

Note: The following is an open letter sent to Ohio senators George Voinovich and Mike DeWine in response to the news that William Pryor, President Bush's recess appointee to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, has been moved from the Judiciary Committee to the full Senate. This letter does not necessarily express the views of the other contributing editors and writers.

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Dear Senators DeWine and Voinovich:

I am writing to you regarding a matter of great importance to our nation's future; I am writing to you regarding the confirmation of President Bush's recess appointee to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge William Pryor. As an American citizen, as an Ohio voter, and as a Catholic person of faith, I feel that I must speak out in opposition to the confirmation of William Pryor and the religious rhetoric that has been adopted by some members of your political party in an attempt to push his confirmation through.

Some members of the Republican Party have said or implied that President Bush's few remaining judicial nominees are being blocked because they are people of faith, and in Judge Pryor's case it has been strongly implied by your colleagues in the Senate and blatantly stated by some Catholic lobbyists that William Pryor has been filibustered by the Democratic Party because he is a Catholic Christian. I am writing to you to discuss Judge Pryor's views in comparison with Catholic social teaching -- which, as Catholics, you probably know very well -- and to assert my opinion as a fellow Catholic that Judge Pryor's views are not consistent with his Catholic faith, and that, therefore, he and his supporters cannot possibly point to his faith as a reason for the opposition to his confirmation.

When speaking of Judge Pryor's views and their consistency with Catholic social teaching, one must first of all look at his views regarding capital punishment. Judge Pryor is on record as being strongly in favor of the death penalty, and he is known for opposing any restriction of capital punishment whatsoever. For instance, Judge Pryor objected to the decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia, in which the court ruled that the mentally retarded and those who are brain damaged cannot be executed. Pryor also objected to Ring v. Arizona, in which the court decided that only juries could impose the death penalty. Even Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative justices on our Supreme Court, stood with the majority in Ring v. Arizona. It must also be noted that the state of Alabama, where Judge Pryor formerly served as attorney general, has sentenced more juveniles to death per capita than any other state in the nation. This strongly implies that Judge Pryor would have disagreed with the Supreme Court's ruling in Roper v. Simmons, which declared the execution of juveniles unconstitutional.

Are Judge Pryor's views on capital punishment consistent with his Catholic faith? In a word: No. While Catholic social teaching does allow some wiggle room when it comes to the issue of the death penalty, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has laid out a very clear teaching on capital punishment. The Catechism acknowledges that Catholic tradition does not exclude recourse to capital punishment, provided that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully established, and provided that the death penalty is the only way of defending society against the aggressor. As a consequence of modern crime prevention methods, "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent" (CCC, #2267). While the teaching of the Catholic Church does allow some wiggle room here, Judge Pryor has moved far beyond that wiggle room and has moved toward full support for the death penalty, which is not permitted for Catholic people of faith.

Another instance of Judge Pryor's straying from the realm of Catholic moral and social teaching is Hope v. Pelzer, in which Pryor argued as the attorney general of Alabama for the practice known as "the hitching post." Essentially, this practice consisted of handcuffing prison inmates to hitching posts in the hot sun if they refused to work on chain gangs or otherwise disrupted them. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Pryor and the state of Alabama in Hope v. Pelzer, but that does not change the fact that Pryor fought as attorney general of Alabama for a practice that is without question opposed to Catholic teaching. The Catechism unambiguously teaches that "torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (CCC, #2297). There can be no doubt that the practice of "the hitching post" was a form of torture used to punish those who would not do what the prison authorities wanted them to do, and to frighten those who might be thinking of doing the same.

There are other elements of Judge Pryor's record which, while being debatable within the context of Catholic social teaching, nevertheless disturb me as a Catholic person of faith.

For instance, Judge Pryor is on record as expressing displeasure with the Voting Rights Act, and calling for either the amendment or repeal of Section 5 of that act. The Voting Rights Act is widely regarded as the most important piece of civil rights legislation in American history; amending or repealing it could significantly affect the civil rights of African Americans and many other Americans.

Another example is the amicus curiae brief that Pryor filed with the Supreme Court as attorney general of Alabama, asking the justices to uphold the Texas "Homosexual Conduct Law." Given that the "Homosexual Conduct Law" provided for the imprisonment of gays and lesbians for private sexual conduct in their own homes, this leads me to wonder if Judge Pryor believes that there is a legitimate reason to imprison American citizens for the private sexual conduct they engage in within their own homes.

Judge Pryor is also on record as opposing United States v. Virginia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women could be admitted to the Virginia Military Institute. This leads me to believe that Judge Pryor is an advocate for gender discrimination in our military and in education. Judge Pryor also filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Alabama opposing the Violence Against Women Act. Alabama was the only state to file a brief in opposition to the act, with 36 states filing briefs in support of the act. All of this leads me to wonder if Judge Pryor has some sort of problem with equal rights for women in our society; if he does, then he is unfit to be a federal appellate judge.

Perhaps the most imperative question, which must be explored by the Senate before Judge Pryor is given a lifetime appointment to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, is whether or not Judge Pryor ruled against the Schindler family in their legal battle to keep their daughter, Terri Schiavo, alive. According to numerous news sources, the original ruling made by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was a 10-2 ruling, although such information does not seem to be available from the text of the ruling itself. What we do know, however, is that Judge Pryor did not participate in the dissenting opinion which favored reinserting Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, which strongly implies that he ruled with the majority if he ruled at all. I think that it is imperative for the Senate to ascertain exactly how he ruled in this case, and I do not believe that he should be confirmed for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals if he ruled against the Schindlers.

Senators DeWine and Voinovich, I have grave concerns regarding Judge Pryor's appointment to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and these concerns are largely based upon my Catholic faith. On at least two questions, Judge Pryor's views are inconsistent with the principles of our faith; on several others, his views are at the very least somewhat controversial. Perhaps more importantly, since we are dealing with a government that is guided by the U.S. Constitution and not the Catholic magisterium, Judge Pryor's views are terribly inconsistent with both the letter and the spirit of our Constitution. In many cases, he advocates for violations of various Americans' civil and human rights.

As a Catholic Christian, and as an American citizen, I do not find such a nominee acceptable for our federal appellate courts. Furthermore, I was glad that the Democratic Party filibustered his confirmation. As a citizen of the state of Ohio, I urge you not to change the rules of the Senate in order to confirm this man and President Bush's other few contentious judicial nominees. If such a rules change does come about, then I urge you to vote against William Pryor's confirmation. He is a danger to America and to the world; he must not become a lifetime appointee to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. I hope you will remember what I've written in this letter on the Senate floor; I will remember it in the voting booth.

God Bless America,
Nathan Nelson

Contributing Editor
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis