Hope has yet again produced a public servant of whom all of Arkansas can be proud. Do our two US Senators know where Hope is?
April 14, 2023, was a perfect spring day in Indianapolis, Indiana. At the Birch Bayh Courthouse, enveloped in marble walls, depression-era murals, and octagonal vestibules, a formal investiture ceremony was held for Judge Doris Pryor — proud daughter of Hope, Arkansas.
For over 130 years, white men have dominated the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. From its first session back in 1891 to early 2023, the court has only seen two Black judges. Judge Doris Pryor is the third and the first Black judge from Indiana to ever serve on the 7th Circuit Court.
My good friends — the Honorable Jim Gunter, former Associate Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, and his wife Judee — were also present at the ceremony. The Gunters made the ten-hour trek through America’s heartland from Hope to Indianapolis to witness Judge Pryor’s historic investiture.
But it was more than the judicial backdrop that led Jim and Judee Gunter to Indiana that day. In a curious, only-Arkansas kind of way, Judee Gunter taught Doris (Clark) Pryor in her math classes at Hope High School. Doris was an honor student and on occasion baby-sat Judee’s son, Guy. Like it is in small town, Arkansas, The Gunters were friends with Doris’ parents, James and Linda Clark.
It was poetic; the people of our state know how to have one another’s backs. So it was a “Hope Fest” on that 72º day at the Birch Bayh Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis.
Hope, the small southwestern town in Hempstead County, has a knack for churning out talented, accomplished Arkansans. In recent memory, Hope has been home to one president (Bill Clinton), two governors (Clinton and Mike Huckabee), a Supreme Court Justice (Gunter), and one Presidential Chief of Staff and hugely successful businessman (Mack McLarty). There’s also the world’s top rated stereo speaker manufacturer and Hope native (Paul Klipsch). And of course the first female country and western singer to sell a million single records was Patsy Montana; she grew up in a small community near Hope.
In keeping with the Hope effect, Judge Doris Pryor graduated cum laude from the University of Central Arkansas in 1999 and worked for a year in her hometown before applying to law school. After graduating from the University of Indiana Mauer School of Law, Pryor returned to Arkansas to work as a public defender. Later on, she served two clerkships for federal judges — Leon Holmes and Lavenski Smith — both appointed by Republican presidents, a fact that would serve as a twist of fate in Judge Pryor’s Senate confirmation hearing.
To say Judge Doris Pryor has good legal chops is like saying the summers in South Arkansas are a tad warm. Judge Pryor has an incredible background in the legal community; she served a four year term as the National Security Chief for the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Indiana, and she was a federal prosecutor for 12 years. Judge Pryor is licensed to practice law in multiple states and was a U.S. Magistrate Judge for four years. Maybe it’s the Hope effect, but it’s also Doris Pryor’s aptitude, drive, and dedication to her vocation that led to such impressive achievements.
Her most recent feather in cap is the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nomination, which came from President Biden last May after a seat on the court opened. Indiana, like Arkansas, is run by Republicans, who hold both the Governor’s office and a supermajority in their state legislature. They also have two Republican US Senators, Todd Young and Mike Braun.
If the Senators wanted to play politics, they could have blocked Judge Pryor’s nomination by refusing to give her a “blue slip” for it to advance. “Blue-slip” is the consultation between the President and the home-state Senators for judicial nominees. The process is used to ensure that nominees, in this case Judge Pryor, are up to snuff — in other words, mainstream and well qualified. In this case, it’s a bi-partisan approach to vetting nominees, resulting in the best-suited candidate for the position at hand.
But Senators Young and Braun did not do that. In fact, they did quite the opposite. When Senator Young introduced her to the Senate Judiciary Committee in July of last year, he specifically expressed his appreciation of the President’s willingness to consult with him and Senator Braun on Judge Pryor’s nomination. It was a heartening display of respect and cooperation from members of both parties.
During the confirmation, Senator Young was effusive in his praise of Judge Pryor. He mentioned that she has experience on all sides of the courtroom, that she understands the difference between the role of an advocate and the role of a judge, and that she has know-how on both the criminal and civil side of the docket. She was unanimously rated qualified by the American Bar Association.
Doris Pryor, the daughter of Hope, AR, shone bright. Recognized as experienced, agile, and of course qualified, Judge Pryor was confirmed on a 60-31 vote in the Senate last December. That roll call vote made her one of the few federal judges nominated by Biden to be confirmed on a strong bipartisan vote. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell voted to confirm Judge Pryor. So did Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.
Hope had yet again produced a public servant of whom all of Arkansas could be proud. So what happened to Doris Pryor’s home state senators on this vote? Astonishingly, neither Senator Tom Cotton nor Senator John Boozman could bring themselves to vote for this highly qualified achiever from the tiny town of Hope, AR. Had she done something to offend? Decide a case they didn’t like? Affiliated with a group that didn’t meet the smell test? With so much experience and such broad bipartisan support, the move by the Arkansas senators is puzzling.
When Ross Perot was running for president years ago he appeared on the Larry King show a lot. When discussing some public policy with which he disagreed, Perot would often say, “It’s just sad Larry.” That’s the way I feel about our political leaders. We may never know why the senators from Arkansas made a point of voting “no” on Judge Pryor’s confirmation. A quick internet search reveals no quotes or statements explaining either man’s thinking.
Judge Doris Pryor is a home state gal with all pluses and absolutely no minuses — even Senators Graham and McConnell see it. Arkansas, including its US Senators, should be more than proud to have Doris Pryor at the helm of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Here in the mid-south, we celebrate the accomplishments of our most talented sons and daughters.
I wonder if Mr. Cotton or Mr. Boozman plan to show up at the Hope Watermelon Festival this year? It might be a little chilly this August, if you catch my drift.