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Bush Nominee Ends Confirmation Battle

Miguel A. Estrada bows out after a two-year standoff over a seat on a major appellate court.

September 05, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Miguel A. Estrada, a Honduran-born lawyer selected by President Bush to be a judge on a powerful U.S. appellate court, on Thursday gave up his two-year quest to win Senate confirmation in the face of unshakable Democratic opposition to a nomination laden with partisan, ethnic and constitutional overtones.

Bush reluctantly withdrew the nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after Estrada told him he wanted to move on with his legal career and family life.

In an angry statement released by the White House, the president said Estrada had received "disgraceful treatment" from Democrats who blocked a confirmation vote. He called it "an unfortunate chapter in the Senate's history."

Democrats and liberal activists, who portrayed the Washington lawyer as an extreme conservative unwilling to answer basic questions about his judicial philosophy, quietly claimed a significant victory.

But Republican leaders and conservative activists loudly protested a stinging defeat. They contended that Estrada, a veteran of Republican and Democratic administrations who has argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court, was highly qualified for the District of Columbia appellate court. Many experts describe that court, which hears cases involving the federal government that have nationwide impact, as second only to the Supreme Court in influence.

Yet unknown is how the controversy over the nomination and withdrawal will affect the allegiances of Latino voters targeted by Bush and his Democratic challengers in the 2004 election. Many Latino groups fervently opposed the nomination; others backed it. But surveys earlier this year found that most Latinos seemed unaware of the dispute.

Republicans charged that Democrats wanted to stop the president from elevating a man who had the potential to become the first Latino on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some have described the District of Columbia appellate bench as a springboard to a seat on the nation's highest court; three of the current justices took that route.

Democrats "did not oppose Estrada because he was Hispanic," said C. Boyden Gray, a leading advocate for Bush's judicial nominees. "They opposed him because he was President Bush's Hispanic."

Democrats, who have supported other Latinos nominated by Bush to the federal bench, denied any ethnic bias.

They noted that since Bush took office, they have approved 145 of his judicial nominees. Fifty nominations are pending.

But they said they would stand firm against nominees who they believe stray from the political mainstream. The nominations of Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen to the federal appellate bench are now stalled on the Senate floor by Democratic protests. Democrats are threatening the same treatment for Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl, chosen two years ago for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco.

Estrada's withdrawal demonstrated the power of a Senate minority to stop action with a filibuster. Through that device, 41 senators in the 100-member chamber can indefinitely delay a final vote on a bill or nomination. By all accounts, Estrada had majority support in the Senate but lacked the supermajority of 60 votes needed to puncture the Democratic blockade and force a confirmation vote.

In seven tests from March to July, Estrada never got more than 55 votes of support. All 51 Republicans backed him, joined by Democrats John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida. The other 44 Democrats and an independent opposed him.

It marked one of the few times in Senate history that a filibuster has blocked a judicial nomination. In 1968, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, nominated to become chief justice, withdrew after his backers failed to break a GOP filibuster.

Republicans dispute whether the Fortas case -- and subsequent filibusters that flamed out -- set a precedent. They said that Estrada's withdrawal marked the first time that a filibuster had killed a federal district or appellate court nomination, and noted that the development undermined the Senate's prescribed role in the Constitution of giving the president "advice and consent" on judicial appointments.

"We have descended to a new and low level here," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the assistant majority leader.

Said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.): "The saga of Miguel Estrada is a tale of rank and unbridled Democrat partisanship, and the American people, sadly, are the losers."

Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the episode served notice that Democrats would not relent in their efforts to maintain ideological balance in federal courts.

"It's a victory for the Constitution and the country," Schumer said.

Added Kennedy: "We have no intention of rolling over."

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