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THE NATION

Estrada Fight Shifts to Latino Groups

Democrats, Republicans vie for the community's support as the Senate battle over the Bush appellate court nominee intensifies.

February 27, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The continuing Senate standoff over President Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to a powerful judicial post is turning into a proxy war for the political loyalty of the Latino community, whose votes may decide which party dominates national politics for years to come.

Senate Democrats for weeks have blocked a vote on Estrada's nomination to the federal appeals court in Washington, and they show no sign of relenting. But Republicans are refusing to set the nomination aside to turn to other issues -- such as Bush's tax cut proposals.

Instead, the White House and its allies are trying to step up pressure on a handful of Senate Democrats to break ranks and back Estrada -- targeting potential fence-sitters and lawmakers from states with large Latino populations.

Bush, who has tried to make the GOP more hospitable to minorities, met Wednesday at the White House with Latino business leaders who support Estrada's nomination. He accused Democrats of applying a double standard by asking Estrada to answer questions not demanded of other judicial nominees.

Staking his personal prestige on Estrada's confirmation, Bush told the packed room, "I will stand by that man's side until he is sworn in."

Republicans have staged other pro-Estrada events around the country, including a rally in Miami and a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. A similar vigil was held outside the Los Angeles office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday, Estrada supporters returned there for a small rally.

Boxer and California's other senator, Dianne Feinstein, who is also a Democrat, oppose Estrada's nomination.

Pro-Estrada forces also are running ads on his behalf on Spanish language television in California, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

Estrada's foes countered with a television ad in Washington making their case against him. They also have conducted news conferences featuring Latino critics of Estrada, who contend that despite his heritage, his views are out of step with the concerns of minorities.

"Estrada's nomination is being aggressively championed by far-right organizations that are trying to fill the federal courts" with conservative judges, said Tracy L. Duckett, spokesman for People for the American Way, a liberal group opposing the nomination.

The campaigns for and against Estrada aim to raise the public profile of a fight that, like most judicial debates, has gotten relatively little attention outside Washington. But the Estrada nomination has become a cause celebre among the conservative and liberal activists that are crucial political constituencies.

"The base of each party gets excited about judicial nominations," said David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "But the big, wide middle doesn't follow it very closely."

The result, for now, is an intractable stalemate that has brought the Senate to a standstill, even as senators talk about the need to turn to other key matters.

If confirmed, Estrada would be the first Latino on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is considered second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in scope and power.

Estrada, 41, worked in the U.S. solicitor general's office during the administrations of Bush's father and President Clinton and now is a Washington-based partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. A Honduras-born immigrant, he graduated from Harvard Law School and received the American Bar Assn.'s highest ratings after his qualifications for the federal bench were reviewed.

But because Estrada has never been a judge, he does not have a record of court opinions detailing his legal philosophy. Democrats contend that he was terse in many answers at his Senate confirmation hearing, sparking criticism that he was deliberately concealing conservative views on abortion and other issues.

Senate Democrats decided earlier this year they would not allow a vote on the nomination until Estrada gives more complete answers about his views and the administration turns over internal memos he wrote while in the solicitor general's office. The White House has offered to make Estrada available to senators for more questioning but has refused to release the memos.

Senate Republicans have enough votes to confirm Estrada, which requires only a simple majority. But they are five short of the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster blocking the nomination from coming to the floor. All 51 Senate Republicans would vote to end the filibuster, but only four Democrats have said they would join them: John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida.

Bill Nelson's decision to oppose the filibuster came as Republicans were turning up the heat in Florida, where about 17% of the population is Latino. The Republican Leadership Council is running pro-Estrada ads targeting Florida's other senator, Bob Graham, also a Democrat.

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