by Anthony York

Quick, ever heard of Priscilla Owen? Didn't think so. Though her July 23 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was a major political happening inside the Beltway, she's unknown to the rest of the country.

But that may soon change. Owen's day in the D.C. spotlight--she's President Bush's judicial nominee for a slot on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals--has branded her Public Enemy #1 for abortion rights groups and, not coincidently, a top political priority for the White House. And yes, there's a local angle; count freshman Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell among the committee members less than impressed with Owen's performance and record on the bench. Over the course of the two hour-plus hearing, Cantwell, one of only two women on the panel, slammed Owen repeatedly over her sharply conservative record in Texas abortion cases.

Cantwell picked a high-profile venue to take on the executive branch's handpicked jurist. Judicial nomination fights are among the most ugly and public blood sports on Capitol Hill--high theater for schadenfreude aficionados who get off on watching nominees squirm under questioning from a publicity-hungry pack of rabidly partisan senators. And the set for this high drama was suitably ostentatious: the luxuriously appointed Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building. The venue was packed, standing room only.

The 400 or so lucky attendees got their money's worth (it was free). Owen endured a harsh round of questioning; the Democratic members seemed universally hostile, though Cantwell stood out from the pack in her zeal to attack the staunchly pro-life Texas Supreme Court justice (and protégé of Bush advisor and political Svengali Karl Rove).

From the looks of the hearing's heated exchanges, Owen may well become the latest casualty in the increasingly bitter battle over appointments to the federal bench. As cognoscenti may recall, Bush's last nominee to the Fifth Circuit, U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, was defeated earlier this year in a party-line committee vote after liberal groups branded the Trent Lott pal a racist. And Owen's doom may well be sealed by Cantwell, given the committee's near-even split between donkeys and elephants (Dems outnumber Republicans by one). She is all but certain to vote against Owen when the committee casts ballots this September.