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A Judicial Nominee's Dizzying Spin

September 29, 2002|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

The Beltway Bandidos are all worked up over President Bush's nomination of Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada to be a federal judge. Yet while the Estrada nomination merits attention and a healthy debate, it is nowhere near the epochal struggle that the overheated rhetoric it is generating might lead one to believe.

Of course, don't expect any of the Beltway Bandidos--that small cadre of professional Latino activists, lobbyists and political appointees who prefer working inside the Beltway to grass-roots activism in the nation's far-flung barrios and colonias--to understand that. They're too close to the perpetual political fires of the capital to remember that, no matter what today's political melodrama is, it probably has been played out before, albeit with a different cast of characters.

Estrada, 41, is a native of Honduras and by all accounts a smart young lawyer (out of Columbia College and Harvard Law School) with a deeply conservative ideological streak.

The reason his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is generating so much heat is that White House political operatives have been bandying his name about as the Latino whom Bush may someday nominate to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although Estrada has never been a judge, the White House's spin on his nomination carries weight because the 2nd District is widely regarded as the second-most-important court in the country, and something of a farm club for the Supreme Court. It is where Clarence Thomas sat, for instance, before being elevated to the high court by President Bush the elder.

Justice Thomas is also the boogeyman who frightens liberal Latino activists when they ponder the prospect of a young right-wing activist such as Estrada on the federal bench with a lifetime appointment. That is why the Congressional Hispanic Caucus lost a bit of stature by announcing its opposition to Estrada before the nominee got his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

Of course, Washington's Latino liberals were only responding to the White House spin regarding Estrada. On several occasions the president has compared the young attorney's brief career to a Horatio Alger story. Not quite. Estrada was the well-educated son of a successful Honduran attorney when he immigrated to New York City.

That is far different from the experience of the typical Central American immigrant, as Bush surely knows.

But then, florid rhetoric is typical of Washington. And so is politicizing judicial appointments, as anyone who remembers the battles over Thomas' ascension to the Supreme Court or the failed nomination of Robert Bork. And if the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is controlled 10 to 9 by Democrats, votes along party lines, Estrada won't even be the first Latino lawyer to be shot down for purely political reasons.

During the Clinton administration, a Republican-dominated Senate held up the appointment of dozens of qualified attorneys to the federal bench for no better reason than they had been nominated by a Democrat.

Among them were such respected Latino attorneys as Samuel Paz of Los Angeles and a couple of Bush's fellow Texans, Jorge Rangel of Corpus Christi and Enrique Moreno of El Paso.

So enough of the Sturm und Drang over Estrada. If he beats the political odds and gets nominated, more power to him. If he doesn't, the White House will have to find another Latino attorney to nominate to the Supreme Court.

That raises a fascinating question that no one has asked in the flap over Estrada: Whatever happened to all the talk that White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's old friend from Austin, is destined to be the first Latino nominated to the Supreme Court? Has Gonzales' reputation begun to wilt in Washington's constant political glare?

It apparently has, if one ponders the views of conservative opinion leaders such as New York Times columnist William Safire. After touting Gonzales as a possible high court nominee early on, Safire's enthusiasm has cooled. This year, the influential columnist went so far as to dismiss Gonzales as a lawyer "who signs off on half-baked memos and orders." Ouch.

No matter what happens to Estrada, we clearly have not heard the last of Bush's plans to nominate a Latino to the Supreme Court. But don't expect it to be pleasant--just highly political.

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