Once it became apparent that President Donald Trump would be nominating a justice to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s long-vacant seat on the Supreme Court, Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was widely considered to be the front-runner for the nomination. Trump mentioned Pryor by name during a primary debate shortly after Scalia’s death, and Pryor appeared on Trump’s first list of 11 potential nominees. In recent days, however, Pryor’s front-runner status has seemed to fade, as he is considered a lightning rod by many liberals, but has also come under fire from some on the right for taking an insufficiently conservative position in several cases.
Pryor was born on April 26, 1962, in Mobile, Alabama, to William Holcombe Pryor, Sr., and his wife Laura, both Roman Catholic school teachers. He attended McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile. His father was a band director, and Pryor himself demonstrated musical talent and was an award-winning timpanist. He began college as a music major, but later switched to legal studies.
Pryor was raised a Roman Catholic and has spoken at length about the role his faith plays in his life. His mother has said that as a child, he “was constantly around priests and nuns and brothers.” In his address Moral Duty and the Rule of Law, delivered at a National Federalist Society Student Symposium in 2007, Pryor described the importance of his faith to his professional life. Explaining that he looked to the Catholic legal icon Sir Thomas Moore for inspiration, Pryor said: “My Catholic faith is the foundation of my worldview, and my judicial duty is governed, from beginning to end, by the law. Faith properly informs the religious lawyer or judge, and morality is not in tension with fidelity to the law.”
Pryor, 54, earned his B.A. from Northeast Louisiana University in 1984 and his J.D. from Tulane University Law School 1987, where he graduated magna cum laude, was editor in chief of the Tulane Law Review, and received the George Dewey Nelson Memorial Award for the graduate with the highest grade point average in the common-law curriculum. While at Tulane, Pryor founded the Tulane Federalist Society chapter.
After graduation, Pryor clerked for Judge John Minor Wisdom on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. After his clerkship, Pryor worked as a private attorney in Birmingham and, for six years, served as an adjunct professor of maritime law at the Cumberland School of Law of Samford University. He served for two years as deputy attorney general of Alabama before becoming attorney general in 1997 at only 34 years old. He was hired by Sen. Jeff Sessions, then Alabama attorney general, and the two have a close relationship. Sessions praised Pryor during Pryor’s confirmation hearings, calling him “a man of the highest integrity.” Since 2006, Judge Pryor has taught federal jurisdiction each fall as a visiting professor at the University of Alabama School of Law.
Pryor ruffled some conservative feathers as attorney general in 2003 when he prosecuted former Alabama Chief Judge Roy Moore for refusing to follow a federal injunction requiring the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Judicial Building. Pryor responded to the criticism, which even included calls to resign, by harkening to his “moral duty to obey the law.”
Pryor could face a more uphill nomination battle than the other finalists. President George W. Bush nominated Pryor to the 11th Circuit in 2003, but the nomination stalled after Senate Democrats criticized Pryor for several incidents. While serving as attorney general, Pryor wrote a brief in defense of the Texas law banning sodomy that was later struck down by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas. In the brief he argued that recognizing a constitutional right to sodomy “must logically extend to activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, incest and pedophilia.”
Additionally, Pryor has called Roe v. Wade the “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law” and during his 11th Circuit confirmation hearings said: “I believe that not only is the case unsupported by the text and structure of the Constitution, but it had led to a morally wrong result. It has led to the slaughter of millions of innocent unborn children.” His mother has said that Roe, which was decided when Pryor was ten years old, influenced him significantly.
As attorney general Pryor advocated strongly for states’ rights. For example, he testified that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is “an affront to federalism”, co-authored a brief arguing that portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act exceeded Congressional authority, represented the only state that filed a brief arguing that the Violence Against Women Act was unconstitutional, and praised the Rehnquist court as “in matters of federalism is principled, coherent, and true to the text and structure of the Constitution.” In a speech entitled “The Supreme Court as Guardian of Federalism,” Pryor ended with: “Although the ACLU would argue that it is unconstitutional for me, as a public official, to do this in a government building, let alone at a football game, I will end with my prayer for the next administration: Please God, no more Souters.”
Bush eventually appointed Pryor to the appeals court during a congressional recess in 2004, and he was later confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 53-45 as part of the Gang of 14 agreement, by which a bipartisan group of senators agreed to allow a vote on several conservative appeals court nominees in exchange for retention of the filibuster. Of the three Republicans who voted against Pryor’s nomination, only Sen. Susan Collins is still in the Senate.
Pryor has also faced criticism from the other side of the aisle, particularly for his 2011 vote in Glenn v. Brumby, in which he joined a panel ruling that protected transgender individuals from workplace discrimination. A recent CBS news piece suggesting that Judges Gorsuch and Hardiman have outpaced Pryor noted that “because he is not a results-oriented judge” he “does not always reach a conservative outcome.” However, a number of conservatives have defended Pryor. For example, John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation reviewed the “problematic” decisions and wrote that “concerns are unwarranted and should not stand in the way of Pryor’s being nominated or confirmed.”
In 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Pryor to serve on the United States Sentencing Commission and he currently serves as Acting Chair. Pryor is married to Kristan Wilson and they have two daughters.