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Bush Judicial Nominee Gets Panel's Nod

In voting in favor of a conservative lawyer, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee harnessed new majority power.

January 31, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee put their new, narrow majority to work Thursday, approving Miguel Estrada, a 41-year-old conservative lawyer, to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals here.

The action came on a 10-9 vote, with all the Republicans voting to support President Bush's nominee, and all the Democrats voting to reject him.

The nomination now moves to the full Senate -- where the Republicans have a two-seat majority -- for final approval.

The fight over Estrada grew unusually contentious for two reasons.

If confirmed, he will give Republican-appointed judges a one-vote majority on an appeals court that is often called the second most important in the nation, subordinate only to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decides key regulatory disputes on issues such as pollution control, worker safety, radio and television broadcasting and antitrust law as, most recently, in the Microsoft case.

The court has eight active judges, four of them named by Republicans and four by Democrats. During President Clinton's second term, Senate Republicans blocked two of his nominees who could have tilted the balance in favor of the liberals.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Senate's liberal leader on issues such as workers' rights, said that balance was reason enough to reject Estrada. "One vote makes all the difference. We have a court that is evenly balanced," he said. As for Estrada, Kennedy said, "his record is empty."

The other central reason for the partisan divide is concern about a possible Supreme Court vacancy.

If he becomes a judge, Estrada, a native of Honduras, could be a contender to be the first Latino chosen for the high court.

White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and a trusted advisor to Bush, is seen by most administration officials as the leading candidate to fill a high court vacancy.

Nonetheless, some conservatives in and outside the government complain privately that Gonzales is a moderate on issues such as affirmative action and abortion. They prefer Estrada.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Estrada a "far-right stealth nominee" who is "sort of reminiscent of Clarence Thomas."

In 1990, Thomas was nominated by the senior President Bush to serve as a judge on the same appeals court in Washington.

A year later, Bush chose him to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall.

During both of his confirmation hearings, Thomas said little in response to the senators' questions and denied having strong personal views on the law. However, after being narrowly confirmed, he proved to be the court's most reliable conservative, along with Justice Antonin Scalia.

During his confirmation hearing in September, Estrada gave brief and unrevealing answers to the senators' questions and stressed that, as a judge, he would put aside his personal views and approach each case "with an open mind."

Estrada was rated unanimously well-qualified by the American Bar Assn. last year. He clerked for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the Supreme Court and worked in the U.S. Solicitor General's office under Clinton and the first President Bush. He developed a reputation as a highly capable lawyer and won praise from, among others, Seth P. Waxman, a solicitor general in the Clinton administration.

Since leaving government, Estrada has been a partner in the Washington office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm based in Los Angeles.

Latino groups are split over his nomination.

The League of United Latin American Citizens and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce endorse him. But the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund oppose him.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was unimpressed with Estrada during the daylong hearing.

"He is very young, has very little of a record and has never been a judge," she said Thursday.

She said her office had about 3,300 calls this week regarding Estrada's nomination, and all but a handful of the callers were opposed to his nomination.

Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sat quietly for much of the session while the Democrats voiced their complaints about Estrada.

Hatch then called for the vote and, after the brisk tally, announced that Estrada's nomination would be reported favorably to the Senate floor.

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