Priscilla Owen was born in Palacios, Texas. Her earliest years were spent on her family's farm in Collegeport. She later grew up and went to school in Waco. She worked part-time during high school and college at her stepfather's insurance company. During summers, she returned to Collegeport, working in rice fields and herding cattle.
Owen started college at the University of Texas at Austin and later transferred to Baylor University to be near her family in Waco. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, from Baylor. She then went to Baylor Law School, where she became editor of the Baylor Law Review, and graduated cum laude in 1977, receiving a Juris Doctor. From among approximately 400 examinees, at age 23, she received the highest score on the December 1977 Texas bar examination.
She joined the Andrews & Kurth law firm in Houston, as a litigator, specializing in oil and gas litigation. She made partner at the age of 30. In private practice, Owen handled a broad range of civil matters at the trial and appellate levels. She was admitted to practice before various state and federal trial courts and appellate courts. She is a member of the American Law Institute, the American Judicature Society, the American Bar Association, and a Fellow of the American and Houston Bar Foundations.
In 1993, after 17 years at Andrews & Kurth, she was asked to run for the Texas Supreme Court as a Republican. She won with 53 percent of the vote, promising to restore integrity and dignity to a court tainted by scandal.
Owen had written articles and lobbied the Texas Legislature to eliminate partisan election of judges, arguing that they hinder the ability of courts to provide impartial justice. When she was up for reelection in 2000, Democrats did not put up an opponent against her, and she was returned to office with 84 percent of the vote, defeating a Libertarian opponent with the help of endorsements from newspapers statewide.
Owen served on the board of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs, which rescues dogs from pounds, provides training for them, and then gives the dogs to disabled people who cannot otherwise afford them. In addition, she was a founding member of the St. Barnabas Episcopal Mission in Austin and has taught Sunday school.
In the mid-1990s, Congress reduced funding for the Legal Services Corporation. Owen was part of a committee that successfully encouraged the Texas Legislature to enact legislation that has resulted in millions of dollars per year in additional funds for providers of legal services to the poor.
Owen served as the Texas Supreme Court's representative on the Court-Annexed Mediation Task Force, working to resolve differences between lawyer and non-lawyer mediators, in order to provide an alternative to expensive courtroom trials. She has been a member of the Gender Bias Reform Implementation Committee and statewide committees regarding legal services to the poor and pro bono legal services.
Owen also served on the boards of advisors of the Houston and Austin Chapters of the Federalist Society. Owen was instrumental in organizing a group known as Family Law 2000 that seeks to find ways to educate parents about the effect that divorce can have on their children and to lessen the adversarial nature of legal proceedings when a marriage is dissolved.
Owen was nominated on May 9, 2001 by President George W. Bush to fill a vacancy on the Fifth Circuit created by Judge William Lockhart Garwood, who had taken senior status on January 23, 1997. Senate Democrats immediately decided to block her nomination for two reasons. First, the Democrats were angry that two previous nominees that President Clinton had nominated to Garwood's empty seat, Jorge Rangel and Enrique Moreno, were never given hearings by the United States Senate during Clinton's second term because the Senate was at the time controlled by Republicans. Second, they considered her to be too conservative. As a result, the Senate Democrats, who controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 107th Congress did not let Owen's nomination come up for a vote. In 2003, after Republicans had taken the Senate back, Democrats filibustered her. In 2005, after Republicans picked up four more seats in the Senate during the 109th Congress her nomination was again considered.
Owen had considerable judicial experience as a member of the Texas Supreme Court, and had been rated "Well-Qualified" (highest possible) by the American Bar Association for the Fifth Circuit position. According to ABC News reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg, Senate Democrats strategically "targeted outspoken conservatives who were potential Supreme Court picks....their successes in filibustering women, Hispanics, and African Americans in 2003 undermined Bush's plans to replace [retiring U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor] with another woman or a minority." Supporters of the Owen nomination asserted that her criticized rulings were often near-unanimous, or simply followed federal precedents. Judge Owen was touted as a judicial conservative who would, in the words of President Bush, "interpret the law, not legislate from the bench."
Opponents, however, criticized her for what they claimed were her conservative positions on contentious social and economic issues, and pro-corporate decisions. Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said that President Bush's appointee as Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, during his service with Owen on the Texas Supreme Court had frequently criticized Owen; Gonzales argued, said Kennedy, that one of Owen's positions taken in dissent would "judicially amend" a statute for the benefit of manufacturers selling defective products. On abortion, Owen was criticized by pro-choice groups for her interpretation of Texas's parental-notification law, and for joining a majority decision on overrides only once.
In May 2005 a compromise was arranged by a bipartisan group of moderate senators called the Gang of 14, which allowed for Owen to be finally given a full Senate vote. On May 24, 2005 debate on her nomination was ended by a vote of 81–18. She was finally confirmed by a vote of 55–43 on May 25, 2005 and was sworn in on June 6, 2005. Owen was the third judge nominated by Bush to the Fifth Circuit and confirmed by the United States Senate.
In 2005, Owen was often cited as a potential Bush Supreme Court nominee to replace retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor. On September 17 of 2005, Minority Leader Harry Reid informed Majority Leader Bill Frist that Owen would be filibustered if she were nominated for the Supreme Court, but Frist believed at the time that Owen could still be confirmed in the face of a filibuster.
In June 2015, Judge Owen joined Judge Carolyn Dineen King in reversing an unconditional writ of habeas corpus granted to Albert Woodfox, one of the Angola Three inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The ruling, which held that Judge James Joseph Brady of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana abused his discretion in issuing the writ, kept 69-year-old Woodfox in solitary confinement at the penitentiary until his release on February 19, 2016. In 2010, Judge Owen joined Emilio M. Garza and Edith Brown Clement in affirming the dismissal of the complaint in Doe v. Silsbee Independent School District. The plaintiff ("H.S.") was a cheerleader who was ordered by her high school to cheer for her alleged rapist, a basketball player named Rakheem Bolton. H.S. refused and was kicked off the team. She sued, claiming a violation of her First Amendment right to free speech. The Eastern District of Texas, Judge Thad Heartfield, granted the school district's motion to dismiss, and Judges Clement, Garza, and Owen affirmed. H.S. was ordered to pay the school $45,000 in legal fees for filing a "frivolous" lawsuit.