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Democrats Spoiling for Estrada Fight

Senators threaten a filibuster over judicial nominee. Battle will test party's resolve in fighting the GOP on makeup of courts.

February 06, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A bitterly divided Senate began debate Wednesday on President Bush's nomination of a conservative Latino lawyer to one of the nation's most influential courts, opening a partisan slugfest that will test how far Democrats will go to fight Republican efforts to reshape the judiciary for years to come.

Many Democrats, spoiling for a fight to block the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, are threatening to deploy a blunt weapon rarely used against judicial nominees: a filibuster that could prevent a vote on a nomination that probably would garner majority support.

"This is an appropriate time to take a tough stand," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.).

But other Democrats oppose resorting to the tactic, fearing that it could come back to haunt a future Democratic president trying to install judges. After a closed-door meeting among Senate Democrats on Wednesday, it remained unclear how long and hard they would fight.

If history is any guide, the odds against a filibuster succeeding are long. The last time a judicial nomination was blocked by such a tactic was in 1968, when Republicans blocked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas from becoming chief justice.

The intensity of the brewing battle over Estrada is a measure of the heightened stakes surrounding judicial nominations after the 2002 elections. With Republicans now controlling both the legislative and executive branches, Democrats cringe at the prospect of conservatives dominating the judicial branch as well -- for years after President Bush leaves the White House.

"The president has chosen to divide rather than unite by sending controversial judicial nominations in an effort to pack the courts" with conservatives, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said as the full Senate opened debate on Estrada's nomination. The debate is expected to stretch at least into next week.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) argued that the Senate should give presidential nominees considerable deference and defeat them only where "problems of character, qualifications or inability to follow the law are evident."

He called liberal opposition to Estrada an example of a "pinata confirmation process," in which critics beat up on nominees until they unearth some damning information about their record.

If confirmed, Estrada, 41, would be one of the highest-ranking Latinos on the federal bench. That could make him a promising candidate to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. His confirmation also would tip the balance of power on the appeals court in Washington, giving GOP-appointed judges a one-vote majority on a bench that decides key regulatory disputes on such issues as pollution control, worker safety, broadcasting and antitrust law.

Estrada, who was born in Honduras, is now a partner in the Washington office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a Los Angeles-based law firm. He worked in the U.S. Solicitor General's office during the administrations of President Clinton and the first President Bush.

The current President Bush nominated him to the appeals court two years ago. With Democrats in control of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on his nomination last year but never brought it to a vote.

During that hearing, Estrada was terse in his answers to questions about his views on such issues as abortion rights and the death penalty. He stressed that as a judge, he would approach each case "with an open mind."

With Republicans winning Senate control in the 2002 elections, a GOP-dominated Judiciary Committee last week approved Estrada's nomination on a party-line vote, 10 to 9, without another hearing.

Some Democrats, still angered by Estrada's answers at the hearing last year, say they need more information about his background and views before making an informed decision on his nomination.

"I am not going to give a blank check with my vote," said Leahy. "The administration seems to think that 'advise and consent' means 'advise and rubber stamp.' "

Others said they wanted to fight Estrada's nomination as a signal to the administration to send less conservative judicial nominees.

"There is a very strong feeling that we should send a message not to fill these courts with ideologues of the right," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota on Wednesday announced his opposition to Estrada, and he said most Democrats agreed with him. But he also said it was unclear whether there was enough backing for a filibuster, which can be sustained with the support of 41 senators.

There are 48 Democrats in the Senate and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats; there are 51 Republicans, enough to approve the nomination along party lines.

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