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Stakes Are High in Push for Latino Court Nominee

April 11, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In what is shaping up as the next great political fight over a prospective judge, Republican senators and Latino activists called Wednesday for swift Senate approval of Miguel Estrada, a 40-year-old native of Honduras and a favorite of Washington's conservatives.

President Bush nominated Estrada last May for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, often a springboard for elevation to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Estrada could be positioned to become the first Latino named to the high court.

But no confirmation hearing has been set in the Judiciary Committee, and Republicans charged Wednesday that the Democrats are stalling because the stakes are so high.

"If you're conservative and a minority, the bar is set higher for you," Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told a small rally of Estrada's supporters at the Capitol.

"This is Clarence Thomas all over again. If you're conservative and a minority, they hate you," he said, referring to liberals and Democrats.

"He is likely to be the first Hispanic American to sit on the Supreme Court. That's the thing they are holding against him," added Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Democrat Cites Lack of Judicial Experience

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) labeled the Republicans' charges as "pure partisan bunk."

"To contend that Mr. Estrada, a young attorney with no judicial experience, is the only Hispanic who could be a nominee to a potential vacancy on the Supreme Court does a disservice to the many outstanding Hispanic judges serving in our federal and state courts," he said.

Leahy repeated his promise to hold a hearing on Estrada's nomination this year but did not set a date. Aides predicted that the hearing would be held in June or July.

But the Republicans are not alone in seeing a parallel to the battles over Thomas.

In 1990, the senior President Bush put Thomas, then 42, on the same U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. Thomas also had no judicial experience, which is not uncommon for nominees to the court.

A year later, when Justice Thurgood Marshall retired, Bush selected Thomas--the only black Republican on the federal appellate bench--to fill his seat on the Supreme Court.

Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, contended that the Bush administration had been searching for a "Latino Clarence Thomas" and appears to have found him in Estrada.

"Remember, George W. Bush [as a candidate] promised to appoint judges in the mold of Thomas and [Justice Antonin] Scalia. And we take him at his word. They are looking for someone who can undermine the key legal precedents of the last 40 years and also divide the progressive community, like Thomas did, at least for a few weeks."

Neas said his group has not taken an official stand on Estrada's nomination. Nor have some Latino legal groups, such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But the Latino Coalition, representing seven national groups, called Wednesday for Estrada's swift approval.

"We are here to blow the whistle on unnecessary partisan obstruction," said Robert Deposada, the group's president. "To deny Latinos, the nation's largest minority, the opportunity to have one of our own serve on this court in our nation's capital is unforgivable."

Court Rules on Regulatory Issues

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is often considered the nation's second most important because it decides national regulatory issues, such as appeals from the Federal Communications Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Currently, the court has nine active judges, four Democratic appointees and five Republican. Like the high court, it has never had a Latino judge.

Chicago attorney Angel G. Gomez, president of the Hispanic National Bar Assn., said his group endorsed Estrada because of his background and experience, not because of his legal views.

"There's not a lot on the record about his views. We are aware he is very conservative, but in the totality of the circumstances, our board chose to endorse him," Gomez said in an interview.

Among both his admirers and detractors, Estrada is regarded as highly capable and strongly conservative.

He was born in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, and his father was a commercial lawyer. After his parents divorced, he moved to New York at age 17 to join his mother and go to college. He graduated near the top of his class at Columbia College and Harvard Law School. His professional life has been divided between New York and Washington.

He served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, worked for Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr in the first Bush administration and then joined the Washington office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, where Theodore B. Olson, the U.S. solicitor general, was a partner.

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