Anyone who has closely followed the Paul Minor story in Mississippi might think it impossible for the case to become even more riven with politics than it already was.
But anyone making that assumption would have been wrong.
On August 15, Judge Priscilla Owen of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that denied Minor release from federal prison pending appeal. And to whom does Owen pretty much owe her career? Why, none other than Karl Rove, the former Bush strategist who is alleged to have been behind the Minor prosecution from the outset.
Thanks to Larisa Alexandrovna and Lindsay Beyerstein at Raw Story, we learn how legally and ethically questionable it was for Owen to be involved in a decision on the Minor appeal.
Readers who have followed the Bush Justice Department's machinations might remember the name Priscilla Owen. Alexandrovna and Beyerstein provide the background:
Priscilla R. Owen was one of the Bush administration’s most conservative and most controversial judicial appointees. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted against Owen’s confirmation as a federal judge in 2002. A New York Times op-ed excoriated Bush for nominating Owen a second time over the objections of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that “ignoring the committee's decision is only one in a growing list of ways the White House and its allies have politicized judicial selection.”
Ultimately, Bush got his way and Owen was confirmed following a second battle in Congress. It was Karl Rove’s interest in seeing Owen on the bench that kept her nomination alive, despite strong criticism of her hard-right interpretation of the law.
Why was Rove pushing so hard for Owen's confirmation?
Rove had a longstanding interest in Owen’s career, beginning in 1994, when Owen hired him as a campaign consultant in her successful bid for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, paying him $250,000 for his efforts. Rove helped Owen raise over $900,000 for that campaign.
Jim Moore, a long-time Texas journalist who has chronicled Rove’s career in several books, including Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, explained the unique relationship between Rove and Owen in a Wednesday phone interview.
"He did everything for her. He created her career. He handpicked her to go to the Texas Supreme Court when he was trying to take over the Texas Supreme Court,” said Moore. “He was looking for people to groom and raise money for and have in his pipeline. Rove went and plucked her out of obscurity. She was an unknown lawyer in Houston.”
Raw Story lays out the process that is supposed to prevent cases from being decided by judges who have conflicts:
Lawyers familiar with the judicial process say Owen could not have been assigned the case by means of favoritism because it would be impossible to interfere with the process of randomly assigning cases to judges without implicating the clerk of court and possibly other judges in a conspiracy.
Yet the appearance of impropriety, even when none actually exists, is often reason for recusal. According to canon two of the US Code of Conduct for United States Judges, “A judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.”
It's unknown whether Owen was aware of allegations Rove had been involved in the prosecutions of Minor, Diaz, Whitfield and Teel. However, the public record and legal filings both either mention Rove by name or reference the White House’s alleged involvement in political prosecutions in general terms. For example, in a letter (pdf) from Paul Minor to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, dated Oct. 22, 2007, Minor expresses his belief that Rove was directly involved in his prosecution. “I am writing to you because you are the only people who can help me prove that the Bush Justice Department’s prosecution of me and Justice Oliver Diaz, Jr., and Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield was politically motivated," he writes. “Over the past few months, it has become increasingly clear that Karl Rove, political strategist for Bush and other Republicans, conceived a strategy to dry up political money to Democratic candidates which included using the Justice Department as an instrument to prosecute prominent Democrats, particularly trial lawyers.”
Owen repeatedly has been criticized for not recusing herself in cases brought by corporate donors to her judicial campaigns:
According to Andrew What, the Research Director for the non-profit legal watchdog Texans for Public Justice, Owen’s career has been rife with questionable decisions."When we followed her on the Texas Supreme Court, she was an activist jurist that was results oriented," What wrote in an email late Wednesday. "Her record suggests that she was keenly aware and sensitive to what side her bread was buttered on. She threw out precedent out again and again to deliver decisions that benefited the business community that paid her bills."