Killer Bill Pryor’s Mad Quest for the Federal Bench


When Bill Pryor was running for re-election as Attorney General for the state of Alabama in 2002, he demanded that the execution dates of 8 prisoners be moved up so that they could be put to death prior to the fall vote.

“Bill Pryor’s a pretty harsh guy,” says Barbara Howard, a defense attorney from Montgomery who handles death penalty cases. “I suspect he did this as a political ploy.”

This “pretty harsh guy” is the man George W. Bush now wants to install in a lifetime position on the 11th Circuit federal court of appeals, covering Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Pryor is so maniacally devoted to the death penalty that he objected loudly to the recent Supreme Court decision in the Atkins case ruling that executing mentally retarded and brain damaged people violated the Constitution.

The would-be federal appellate judge finds nothing wrong with having court-appointed, low paid, inexperienced and often incompetent lawyers defend death penalty cases, even when they snooze off during testimony or fail to cross-examine key witnesses against their clients.

Pryor also tartly dismisses allegations of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty as a diversionary tactic by out of state (read northern and Jewish) defense lawyers. At gatherings of the Federalist Society, he gripes endlessly about the appeals process available to the condemned and has vowed to do everything in his power to truncate appeals and accelerate executions.

From his perch in Montgomery, Pryor ridiculed the Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona, which ruled that only juries can impose the death penalty. He contends that juries are too susceptible to emotional appeals for leniency from crafty defense lawyers, thus he backs Alabama’s arcane and vicious law allowing judge’s to impose the death penalty even when a jury has recommended life in prison. President Bush claims that Pryor is squarely in the tradition of his two favorite Supremes, Scalia and Thomas. But even Scalia, God’s willing executioner, voted to defend the right of juries in the Ring case.

Pryor, a pious father of two, even thinks that children should be sentenced to death and he has done so in record fashion: Alabama has now sentenced more juveniles to death on a per capita basis than any other states.

In short, Bill Pryor is doing his bloody best to impress George Bush, the man who as governor of Texas set the high bar for state executions, with his prosecutorial zeal. By all measures, he has succeeded on both counts.

Under Pryor’s gruesome reign, Alabama has been sending more people to death row than any other state, surpassing even kill-happy Texas. And the people who go to death row are predominately poor black men.

Roughly 90 percent of the people on death row were represented by court-appointed public defenders, working on a tight budget controlled by the state. Trying cases against such underfunded and overworked lawyers creates an enormous courtroom advantage for Pryor and his prosecutors as the press forward in their mission to set death house records.

The application of the death penalty in Alabama is racist at its core. In Alabama, blacks account for 12 percent of the population. Yet, more than 70 percent of the inmates on Alabama’s death row are black. George Wallace’s view of racial relations seems downright humanitarian next to Pryor’s coarse version.

Still when push comes to shove, Pryor is willing to kill just about anyone to prove a point. On May 10, 2002, he gloated over the electrocution of Lynda Lyons, the first woman executed in Alabama in the last 45 years.

In Alabama, you can also be put to death for a crime that a jury of your peers decided wasn’t deserving of the ultimate sanction. That’s because Alabama allows judges to overturn jury verdicts at the request of prosecutors. And they regularly do so. More than a quarter of the inmates on Alabama’s death row are there because judges threw out jury sentences of imprisonment and imposed the death penalty.

Although he purports to be a devoutly Catholic man, who is also in tune “with the vision of Pat Robertson”, Pryor seems to have forgotten the Sixth Commandment handed down to Moses by the Supreme Deity of the Christian faith. It’s a curious lapse of memory given that Pryor fought tirelessly on behalf his mentor, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. For years, Moore crusaded to open his court sessions with a prayer and read out stern Biblical passages along with his unfailingly sentences. Moore also grabbed national headlines with his campaign to have the 10 Commandments enshrined on a stone monument inside the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme court building, prompting a lawsuit that landed in federal court.

At a “Save the Commandments” rally on the steps of the Alabama Supreme Court, Pryor railed against the ACLU like a crazed prophet from the Old Testament: “God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians to save our country and our courts.”

To argue the state’s losing case in favor of Moore’s religious monument, Pryor hired Herb Titus, the founding dean of Pat Robertson’s law school. This was not the first time Pryor had recruited lawyers from Robertson’s operation. A year earlier he tapped Jay Sekulow to serve as his assistant attorney general. Sekulow, who was assigned to handle school prayer cases, previously had headed Robertson’s legal outfit, the American Center for Law and Justice.

“Pryor’s political career has literally been a crusade to ‘Christianize’ America through government action,” says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “He wants to overturn a half-century of court rulings upholding religious liberty and other fundamental constitutional protections.”

While Pryor argues that child convicts should be put to death with dispatch, he fervently draws the line at fetuses. “I will never forget January 22, 1973, the day seven members of our highest court ripped the Constitution up and ripped out the life of millions of unborn children,” Pryor said in 1997. Indeed, he opposes abortion in almost every instance, including rape and incest. Pryor even backed a ludicrous bill in the Alabama legislature that would have appointed a lawyer to act as a guardian ad litem for the fetus of any woman considering an abortion.

His views haven’t mellowed over time. “Abortion is murder and Roe v. Wade is an abominable decision,” Pryor said last year. “I support the right to life of every unborn child.”

Once those fetuses reach term, though, Pryor washes his hands of them, especially if they are poor or black. As attorney general he tried to undermine a consent decree aimed at improving Alabama’s notorious state child welfare system, which stored troubled kids in abusive foster homes and wretched psychiatric wards. When asked about his maneuvers to shirk the requirements of the consent decree, Pryor cloaked it in the addled rhetoric of states rights. “It matters not to me whether the actions would leave children unprotected,” Pryor said. “My job is to make sure that the state of Alabama isn’t run by federal courts. My job isn’t to come here and help children.”

This man who detests federalism with a fervor not seen since the secessionists of old now wants to serve on a federal appeals court.

One might wonder why a man who professes such profound hostility toward the law would choose to become a lawyer, never mind a federal judge. Rarely at a loss for words, Pryor is quick with an answer. “I became a lawyer because I wanted to fight the ACLU-the Anti-American Civil Liberties Union.” Pryor says he chose Tulane University Law School because it didn’t have any “wild-eyed leftist student organizations.”

Pryor’s certainly no leftist, but he sure is wild-eyed, especially when it comes to sexual relations. He holds the ignominious honor of being the only attorney general to file a brief attacking the Violence Against Women Act. Ever the defender of prudish virtue, Pryor threw himself into a defense of Alabama’s Dildo Law, which forbade the sale of vibrators. Dredging deep into the recesses of Federalist Society legal theory, Pryor argued that there is no right to privacy in Alabama and that the state had the authority to outlaw any kind of pleasure devices it wanted, even when accompanied by a doctor’s prescription. Naturally, Pryor is unwilling to apply the same legal mumbo jumbo to assault weapons.

His homophobic sentiments rival those of Senator Rick Santorum, the famously anti-gay Republican from Pennsylvania. In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in the Texas same-sex sodomy case, Pryor urged the court to uphold the ban. “A constitutional right that protects ‘the choice of one’s partner’ and ‘whether and how to connect sexually’ must logically extend to activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography and even incest and pedophilia.” Santorum and Pryor must have attended the same Christian Coalition prayer breakfast.

Pryor’s legal resume bulges with other entries to impress the neo-cons and corporate courtiers inside the Bush White House. Take Pryor’s position on tort claims, which he quaintly calls “lawsuit abuse”. Of course, he follows the usual Republican talking points on limiting punitive damages, capping fees for trial lawyers and the like. But he goes much, much further than even many of the most extreme ideologues in his party. Pryor has filed briefs calling for the elimination of almost every federal law that impinges on corporate enterprise, from the Americans With Disabilities Act to the Clean Water Act. He believes that the Environmental Protection Agency should be eliminated and its functions devolved to the states. As the Anniston Star points out, “in Alabama there is no environmental protection agency to speak of.”

These favors on behalf of big business are returned in kind. In 1999, Pryor founded the Republican Attorneys General Association, a shadowy PAC-like organization that solicits large contributions from corporations facing federal or state lawsuits and funnels the money into state attorney general races. Millions have come and gone in the past four years, but there’s no way to determine which companies gave money or precisely how much, since the funds go into the RNC’s “soft money” accounts. Pryor refuses to disclose the donors and shrugs off talk about conflict of interest.

But a March 30, 2000 story in the Washington Post revealed that RAGA collected more than $500,000 in a single day for a conference in Austin which featured a special briefing for the contributors by Karl Rove, Bush’s top political strategist. Among the donors were Aetna, Microsoft, Ameritech and tobacco companies. At the time, all of these companies faced potential legal action by the states.

“I think this erodes every attorney general,” said former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger. “If you don’t prosecute a case against someone when people think you should, or defend someone when people think you shouldn’t, that’s your job. But once somebody thinks one of us is doing that for political reasons, it affects us all. This is absolutely an effort by people with special interests to stop attorneys general from pursuing their traditional role as protectors of the public interest, not special interests.”

Pryor doesn’t like defense attorneys much, except when it comes to defending corporations. Take his position on the tobacco settlement, which he tried to sabotage even though the deal meant billions of dollars to his state, one the poorest in the nation.

“Bill Pryor was probably the biggest defender of tobacco companies of anyone I know. He did a better job of defending the tobacco companies than their own defense attorneys.” That’s not the assessment of “a greedy trial lawyer”, but the Attorney General of Mississippi, Mike Moore.

Eventually, the settlement was approved. But Alabamans lost out thanks to Pryor’s meddling for big tobacco. For example, Mississippi’s share of the settlement amounted $1,500 per citizen, while Alabama garnered only $900 per citizen.

Gone are the days when senators had to divine the political views of inscrutable judges, who endeavored to conceal their more controversial opinions on abortion or the death penalty until they were confirmed and invested on the bench. With Bill Pryor there’s no need to read between the lines. This is after all the man who zestfully defended Alabama Governor Fob James’ demented plan to chaining prisoners to hitching posts as form of punishment. The fiendish plan was soon struck down by a federal court.

“Please God, no more Souters,” Pryor wailed a few years ago to a gathering of Republican ultras. The prosecutor was referring, of course, to that great bugaboo of the far right: David Souter, the enigmatic judge from New Hampshire appointed by Bush the First, who quickly emerged as the Supreme Court’s most reasoned and restrained justice and the only effective foil to the Scalia-Thomas-Rehnquist block.

Pryor wants everyone to know he’s no David Souter. Indeed, Pryor, like many of his fellow Bush nominees, boasts proudly about his most rancid views on civil rights, abortion, and tort reform. Pryor’s agenda is as toxic as it is transparent: jail the poor and execute as many as you can as quickly as possible; allow the public sphere to be infested with Christian dogma; roll back civil rights and voting rights gains; and protect interest of corporate elites regardless of their crimes.

You can hail Pryor for being honest if you like, but his brazen resume seems to speak more to the corrosive tenor of our times, where barbarous opinions now serve as a calling card for a lifetime position on the federal courts.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3