Few judicial nominees are better qualified or more honorable than Justice Priscilla Owen, since 1994 a member of the Texas Supreme Court. And few nominees have been treated with more disrespect than in her July 23 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is one who owes Justice Owen an apology. Because she chaired the hearing, Sen. Feinstein asked the first question about a case titled Ford Motor Company v. Miles. In April 1993, a car hit the Ford pickup in which teen-ager Willie Searcy was riding. His seatbelt severed, and the crash rendered him a quadriplegic. His family sued Ford, won a large judgment and Ford appealed.
In Justice Owen’s hearing, Sen. Feinstein said that “while the year and a half dragged by that you were supposed to be writing that opinion, one morning [Willie's] respirator went out and he died.” She went on: “This was a very surprising case for me to read about you because I thought you, and hope I’m right, were a person with a great deal of compassion, and yet here was someone that had two courts sustaining a verdict which could have gotten him the nursing help that he needed to sustain his life, but during the delay, he died.” Sen. Feinstein basically said Priscilla Owen killed Willie Searcy.
Sen. Feinstein left out a few details. Willie’s lawyer waited 11 months after the accident before filing the lawsuit in Rusk County. The accident, however, occurred in Dallas County. The plaintiff and defendants were located in Dallas County, and the truck was purchased in Dallas County. As tort lawyers know, he was forum-shopping. That was his call, but he risked having to start all over again. He won $30 million in actual and $10 million in punitive damages, but failed to win other damages.
Cases in Rusk County can be appealed to either the 6th or the 12th Court of Appeals. Willie’s lawyer wanted the 6th; Ford wanted the 12th. Willie’s lawyer filed his appeal first, but appealing that round of forum-shopping ate up another nine months.
After argument in the Texas Supreme Court, the plaintiff and defendant continued filing additional briefs and other materials until January 1998. Justice Owen issued her majority opinion on March 19, 1998. The lawyer’s first roll of the forum-shopping dice turned out to be snake eyes. He should have filed the suit in Dallas County after all. He lost in the new trial and appealed in August 1999. The court of appeals did not issue its decision until June 29, 2001. Willie’s respirator failed between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. four days later.
Willie Searcy did not die, as Sen. Feinstein claimed, “during the delay” while Justice Owen was “supposed to be writing that opinion.” He died 1,140 days after Justice Owen issued her opinion. Justice Owen did not wait 323 days before rolling the dice on Rusk County; Willie’s lawyer did. Justice Owen did not eat up another 288 days by rolling the dice on the Sixth Court of Appeals; Willie’s lawyer did. Justice Owen did not take 696 days to issue a decision; the court of appeals did.
And another thing. As Sen. Feinstein described it, Willie’s family “could only pay for a nurse through 4 a.m. and there was a quiet hour with nobody attending him, and then the parents attended him from 5 a.m.” Nobody blinked at that during the hearing. A “quiet hour with nobody attending him”? With a mother and stepfather in the house? If your son needed round-the-clock attention and the nurse left at 4 a.m., what time would you get up?
This issue was first raised in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on July 14, which quoted the plaintiff’s attorney saying the “delay” in Justice Owen writing the opinion “contributed to causing Willie’s death.” The leftist Alliance for Justice repeated it in its report opposing the Owen nomination, and Sen. Feinstein picked it up and ran with it.
Neither the newspaper nor the Alliance for Justice nor Sen. Feinstein even mentioned the date of Justice Owen’s opinion. Instead, Justice Owen herself said that Willie “did not pass away while the case was pending in my court.” Justice Owen discussed the forum-shopping. Justice Owen observed the delay in filing the original lawsuit. And Justice Owen mentioned that, after the appeals court’s last decision, “there’s been no … trial to adjudicate whether Ford is liable in the first instance.”
Surely, you say, a Republican senator would have shown some real indignation at such abuse of both the nominee and the truth. Surely Sen. Feinstein would have acknowledged how grossly misinformed, how embarrassingly wrong, she had been. You’d be wrong. No Republican uttered a peep. And Sen. Feinstein said “thank you” and moved to the next topic.
Has the maniacal, ideology-crazed left stooped so low in its assault on the judiciary? Sen. Feinstein should rethink her marriage to leftist groups like the Alliance for Justice because they’re feeding her bad information. Sen. Feinstein owes it to the American people, the U.S. Senate and the judiciary to at least try to deal with most of the truth. It is a cruel irony that Sen. Feinstein administered the oath in which Justice Owen promised before God Almighty “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Sen. Feinstein owes Justice Owen an apology.