Stalemate over Bush nominee previews `coming attractions'

Debate over conservative escalating into battle over future of federal courts

February 24, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Senate is locked in a stalemate over one of President Bush's conservative judicial nominees, and the debate is taking on the tenor and intensity of a Supreme Court confirmation battle.

That's no coincidence. The nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is shaping up as a test of both parties' wills as they prepare - perhaps this year - to debate a potential vacancy on the Supreme Court.

What began as a low-profile debate over Estrada, a 41-year- old Honduran immigrant and darling of conservatives, has escalated into a battle over the future of the federal courts.

Republicans are determined to show they will stand behind Bush's conservative nominees. Democrats are just as intent on proving that they won't accept nominees whose views they consider outside the mainstream.

It is a struggle with political and ethnic undertones as the two parties vie for the Hispanic vote in 2004. Both sides know, too, that their actions could eventually help determine the makeup of the country's highest court.

"It is very much a preview of coming attractions," said Sheldon Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts and an authority on the judiciary. "Democrats are drawing a line in the sand."

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and key member of the Judiciary Committee, called the debate "a prelude to the nomination of the next justice of the Supreme Court."

Estrada would be the first Latino on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is widely regarded as the second most important court after the Supreme Court and has often been a steppingstone to the high court. The Supreme Court has never had a Hispanic justice.

The nominee's personal story is a compelling one: Estrada immigrated as a teen-ager who spoke little English. Within a few years, he had graduated with honors from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He went on to clerk at the Supreme Court, was a top Justice Department lawyer under Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, and is now a partner in a Washington law firm.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Estrada's nomination on a strict party-line vote. With the matter stalled on the Senate floor, the jousting has become heated. Both sides have launched campaigns to sway public opinion.

`Give the man a vote'

Bush took the unusual step Saturday of devoting his weekly radio address to Estrada's nomination. Praising his qualifications and his personal background, the president called the delay in confirming Estrada a "disgrace" and implored Democrats to "give the man a vote."

"Their tactics are unfair to the good man I have nominated," Bush said of Democrats, "and unfaithful to the Senate's own obligations."

Bush and his congressional allies argue that Estrada deserves, at the least, the chance for a Senate vote.

Democrats are blocking action, complaining that Estrada is trying to sneak into a lifetime term without revealing his views on constitutional issues. At his confirmation hearing last year, Estrada declined to reveal his views of major court precedents, saying it would be inappropriate because he might one day have to rule on those issues.

"By remaining silent, Mr. Estrada only buttressed the fear that he is a far-right stealth nominee, a sphinx-like candidate who will drive the nation's second-most-important court way out of the mainstream," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is on the Judiciary Committee.

The Bush administration has also denied Democrats' requests for the release of memos Estrada wrote when he was assistant to the solicitor general. Doing so, officials argue, could chill government lawyers' willingness to give candid advice.

Republicans have the 51 votes they would need to confirm Estrada. But they lack the 60 votes required to overcome Democrats' procedural hurdles.

Democrats say they have 44 opponents to block a confirmation vote - three more than they would need. (Three Democrats - John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska - say they would not block a vote.)

High-stakes floor fight

When they return from a congressional break this evening, the senators are expected to engage in a drawn-out floor fight over the nomination. The stakes, both sides say, are high.

The Supreme Court has not had a vacancy for nine years - the longest such interval since the early 19th century. At least one of the justices is thought likely to retire before Bush's term ends in 2004, giving the president a chance to appoint a conservative to a lifetime term.

So Estrada, who not only has a dynamic personal story but also widely acclaimed legal talent, is regarded as a potential Supreme Court pick.

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