William H. Pryor Jr., an Alabama-based judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, would be the only member of the Supreme Court who did a stint as a politician, and it was during that time that he took some of his most notable positions on civil rights and discrimination cases.
As Alabama’s twice-elected attorney general, Pryor defended the state’s practice of handcuffing prison inmates to hitching posts in the hot sun if they refused to work on chain gangs. A staunch defender of federalism, he filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, that ultimately invalidated state sodomy laws, arguing that “states should remain free to protect the moral standards of their communities through legislation that prohibits homosexual sodomy.”
Pryor, 54, has been an especially outspoken critic of abortion rights, calling Roe v. Wade “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.”
If his confirmation to the 11th Circuit is any indication, the judge is in for a lengthy battle if he is nominated by President Trump to the Supreme Court.
When President George W. Bush nominated him to his current post in 2003, Senate Democrats refused to allow Pryor’s confirmation, calling him an “extremist,” citing his position on both Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas as examples. Bush ultimately bypassed the regular Senate confirmation process and appointed him when the Senate was in recess. But it wasn’t until two years later, after a deal was struck between Republicans and Democrats, that Pryor received his official Senate confirmation.
Pryor is perhaps the most polarizing figure of the potential nominees, with some groups thinking he leans too far right while other groups view him as leaning too far left.
The editorial page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has labeled him a “right-wing zealot” and the Alliance for Justice has joined with at least a half-dozen other liberal and Democratic groups to campaign against him. “On issue after issue, whether as an advocate or as a judge, he has taken the most far right positions,” said Daniel L. Goldberg, legal director of Alliance for Justice.
At the same time, Conservative Christians of Alabama refer to him as “the liberal Bill Pryor” and the conservative Judicial Action Group is campaigning against his possible nomination, saying his decisions on some gay and transgender rights cases illustrate how he “has failed to interpret the Constitution as the framers intended.”
Both friend and foe point to the same decisions in arguing over whether he is fit to serve on the Supreme Court.
There’s the often-cited 2003 incident when, as Alabama Attorney General, Pryor prosecuted then-Chief Justice Roy S. Moore when he disobeyed a federal court order to remove a two-ton monument of the Ten Commandments at the state judicial building.
And Pryor was part of a controversial ruling in 2011 involving transgender rights. The three-judge panel in Glenn v. Brumby ruled unanimously that Georgia officials violated the Equal Protection Clause when they fired a transgender employee.
His opponents believe there were legal paths Pryor could have followed to avoid the prosecution of Moore and to come to a different conclusion on Glenn v. Brumby. His supporters say these incidents serve as proof that Pryor will follow the rule of law, not his personal convictions, when he is faced with difficult decisions.
“He’s not some kind of rigid ideologue, said Charlie Condon, a former attorney general of South Carolina, who with Pryor founded the Republican Attorneys General Association in the late 1990s. “He’s intellectually honest. He follows the law, regardless of his personal beliefs.”
Pryor was born on April 26, 1962, in Mobile, Ala., the eldest of four children and part of a tightknit, devout Catholic family. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father a band director at a local high school.
In an interview, Pryor’s mother, Laura Pryor, defended him against criticism that he might thwart the Constitution in favor of his own personal beliefs.
“He’s a constitutional lawyer,” she said. “A constitutional scholar. He is not going to make up the law.”
She described him as “hardheaded,” but then added, “The whole Pryor family is hardheaded.”
Laura Pryor said both her son’s independent spirit and interest in politics became clear at an early age. He volunteered for his first political campaign when he was still in elementary school, announcing to his parents — both “Kennedy Democrats” — that he would be campaigning for the Republican candidate in a local election.
“He decided he wanted to hand out fliers, and he did it on his own,” she said. “He was a Republican even back then and he knew it. He disagreed with his momma and daddy a lot.”
Although politics and the law became Pryor’s career, one of the things few people outside of Alabama know about the judge is that his first love was music. He entered college as a music major and a highly skilled timpanist, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a high school band director.
However, during summer break after his freshman year, he spent a significant amount of time watching C-SPAN, something that did not escape his mother’s notice.
Pryor’s family life also shaped his strong views on abortion. His mother remembers her eldest son sitting at the kitchen table the morning she and her husband discussed their concerns and disapproval of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. “It affected him more than I realized,” she said.
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