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Frustrated Latinos Lobby Clinton for a Place on High Court

False rumor of Justice Stevens' resignation reignited efforts. But president resists a commitment.


WASHINGTON — For almost a decade, White House lawyers under Presidents Bush and Clinton have been quietly searching for a Latino jurist who could be named to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Such a nomination not only would be hailed as a historic first, but it could give a major political boost to the president's party, because nearly one in nine Americans has a Latino heritage.

But the lengthy, and so far fruitless, search is becoming a source of frustration for many Latinos who say they have heard lots of promises but have not seen much action.

"Quite frankly, I don't think they have ever been serious about it," said Antonia Hernandez, executive director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles.

Though advisors to Bush and Clinton mentioned Latino candidates as top contenders for previous appointments, "I don't believe a Latino has yet been under serious consideration," she said.

The issue flared anew with rumors that 78-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens planned to retire at the end of the court term. White House judge-pickers scrambled to update their files of potential nominees, including several veteran Latino jurists.

But the rumors were wrong. The still-spry Stevens announced that he would be back in the fall for his 23rd year on the bench.

The latest disappointment for Latino leaders has raised the specter that the Clinton administration will end with no Latino on the court. Neither Stevens nor Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 73, the oldest members of the court, is seen as likely to retire in the next two years.

"We were disappointed the first time, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was chosen," said Carlos G. Ortiz of the Hispanic National Bar Assn. "We were disillusioned and outraged the second time around," when Stephen G. Breyer was named to the court in 1994.

"We are extremely confident we will get the nod the next time around," said Ortiz, a New York corporate lawyer. "It would be unimaginable for us to be bypassed a third time. If he doesn't get another chance, Clinton's successor--whether a Republican or Democrat--will seize this opportunity."

The high-pressure lobbying has been heard within the administration. "They have been persistent, very persistent," one official said of the Latino community.

The lobbying, however, also has created something of a dilemma for the White House. Although administration officials say they are anxious to promote a Latino jurist, they do not want to commit themselves--or be seen as committed in advance--to choosing from only one list of candidates.

Seeking a Latino jurist for the high court "is a priority for the administration. It would be great if we can find the right person," said new White House Deputy Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste. But, she added, many factors come into play in picking a new justice. "It is inappropriate to ask the president to commit to a particular constituency. When there is a vacancy, we want to look at all the candidates."

Until the early 1970s, nominees to the Supreme Court often came from political posts (such as Sen. Hugo Black in 1937 and California Gov. Earl Warren in 1953), or were presidential advisors (such as Byron White, President Kennedy's deputy attorney general, and Arthur Goldberg, his Labor secretary).

But in recent decades, most high court nominees have been veteran appeals court judges. Both of Clinton's choices--Justices Ginsburg (from the U.S. court of appeals in Washington) and Breyer (Boston) fit that mold.

If nothing else, a judge's record of written opinions gives the president and Senate confidence that they know what they are getting.

White House officials say they maintain a list of a dozen or more possible nominees to the Supreme Court. They include, for example, federal appeals court Judge David S. Tatel, 56, a former civil rights attorney who is blind.

When Clinton took office, his advisors set out to create a cadre of experienced Latino jurists on the lower courts. Administration officials say they have made progress but still lack what one called "a true star."

Nonetheless, several now are seen as potential Supreme Court nominees.

They include U.S. appeals court Judges Fortunado P. Benavides of Austin, Texas; Jose A. Cabranes of New Haven, Conn.; and Carlos F. Lucero of Denver; as well as U.S. District Judges Ruben Castillo of Chicago; Martha Vazquez of Santa Fe, N.M.; Richard Paez of Los Angeles; and Sonia Sotomayor of New York.

Clinton has nominated Paez and Sotomayor to move up to their regional appeals courts.

The Hispanic National Bar Assn. gave the White House its short list of six candidates for the Supreme Court. Besides Benavides and Cabranes, it included New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Joseph F. Baca, former U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Gilbert Casellas, former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and Los Angeles lawyer Vilma S. Martinez.

Had Stevens retired, Cabranes would have been the favorite to succeed him.

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