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For Hispanic Groups, A Divide on Estrada …Bush Presses Democrats On Confirmation… Strategists See Victory In Stalemate

For Hispanic Groups, A Divide on Estrada

Political, Geographic Fault Lines Exposed

By Darryl Fears

February 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

When he spoke in support of federal judicial nominee Miguel Estrada at a recent news conference, Jacob Monty masked his harsh criticism of opponents in Spanish. He said Latinos who are fighting against the Bush administration's choice for a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit "no tienen vergüenza" -- have no shame.

That comment by Monty, a former chairman of the Texas-based Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, was just one shot in a bitter war of words that has divided Latino politicians and civil rights organizations in ways rarely seen.

It followed one fired by Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.), a member of the Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which opposes the nominee. "Being Hispanic for us," Menendez said, "means much more than having a surname" -- a statement his critics understood to imply that Estrada is not "Hispanic enough."

The name-calling has reminded some observers of the bitterness among African Americans during the Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas -- a hearing that Thomas, a conservative black man, likened to a lynching after liberal activists persuaded Anita Hill, a former assistant, to come forward with sexual harassment allegations against him.

Latino activists have differing perceptions of who Estrada is and what kind of judge he would be.

Estrada's supporters say he is a Latino success story, immigrating as he did from Honduras at age 17 and going on to graduate from Columbia College at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and clerking for Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. He is now a partner with the District law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a nominee for a judgeship on what is considered the nation's second most powerful court because it has jurisdiction over all appeals regarding federal regulatory agencies.

Opponents question whether Estrada appreciates the interests of poor people -- his family came from the Honduran elite -- and say his conservative politics would color his decisions on the bench. They say Estrada has a low regard for hard-won civil rights protections that benefit Latinos.

Ideological wars over federal judicial nominations are nothing new, but the fight among Latinos offers a small window on how what will soon be the nation's largest ethnic minority is divided by ideology and geography.

Of the Latino community's three most influential groups, each has taken a different position on Estrada's nomination. The League of United Latin American Citizens, based in Texas, supports it; the Mexican American Defense and Educational Fund, in California, opposes it, and the National Council of La Raza, in Washington, has remained neutral.

The fuse for the current debate was lit in June, when members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Estrada in the basement of the Capitol. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.) said the nominee at first looked uncomfortable as he stared at the faces of 16 Democrats across the long boardroom table.

"We wanted to make sure the nominee . . . appreciates what the court system means for Latinos," Gonzalez said recently. Estrada was not available for comment.

"We wanted him to give us some idea of how the role of a judge impacts minority communities, and it just wasn't there."

Two weeks later, the caucus returned a recommendation opposing Estrada's nomination to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then controlled by Democrats. Latino civil rights groups read the recommendation, then met among themselves.

In October, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) voted to support Estrada.

"It was just very difficult for us not to support the guy, given his impeccable credentials," said Hector Flores, president of the Texas-based group. "It's the American dream, rising up from Honduras the way he has. The battle isn't whether he's conservative; it's that he represents Latinos, whether we like him or not."

Flores said the vote to support Estrada was overwhelming, but in recent days the California state delegation of LULAC broke away from the national group in opposing the nominee. In a Feb. 12 statement, a former president of LULAC, Mario Obledo, opposed the nominee because of his "sparse record" on civil and constitutional rights issues, and because he declined to answer questions about his record in Senate hearings.

LULAC's overall support was backed by Monty, the former chairman of AAMA. His assertion that Estrada's opponents were shameless was broadcast on C-SPAN and remembered by Flores, who was present. Monty did not return several calls seeking comment.

President Bush tried to keep up the pressure yesterday by giving an interview to the Spanish-language Telemundo network, and vigorously urged senators to confirm Estrada.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) recently said that Estrada's Democratic opponents were "anti-Latino," and brought howls from his liberal colleagues and from leaders of Latino organizations across the land.

Marisa Demeo, regional counsel for the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Hatch failed to mention three Latinos nominated for judgeships by the Clinton administration whom Republican senators opposed. Those nominations -- of Jorge Rangel, Enrique Moreno and Christine Arguello -- were returned to President Bill Clinton without a hearing or vote.

Demeo said LULAC and AAMA back Estrada for cosmetic reasons. "Because he's Latino, they would support him," she said. "They've been very strong in thinking there should be a Latino sitting on the D.C. Circuit, and we say it is important, but not at such a cost."

The cost, she said, would be the weakening of civil rights laws. "The groups opposing have taken the analysis a step further," Demeo said. "We look at the record to determine what kind of judge Mr. Estrada would be."

MALDEF is supported by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southwest Voter Registration Project and the Hispanic caucus, among other groups.

"I don't know why the administration put up Estrada," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. "He was marked as a right-wing ideologue some time ago. Clearly, that is a tactic by the Bush administration . . . not to really embrace issues that are important to Latinos, but to try symbolic measures."

Bush Presses Democrats On Confirmation Of Judge

February 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 REUTERS. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush accused Senate Democrats on Wednesday of ``flaunting the intention of the Constitution'' as he sought to crank up pressure on them to permit confirmation of Miguel Estrada, a conservative Hispanic attorney, to a federal appeals court.

``They're blocking the vote on this good man for purely political reasons,'' Bush charged as the Senate debated for a third week his bid to make Estrada the first Hispanic on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Bush made his comments before The Latino Coalition, which began airing radio ads on Monday in Florida and a handful of other states in support of the 41-year-old Washington lawyer.

On Tuesday, after being targeted by these ads, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida announced he would support Estrada. Democrat Bob Graham, also of Florida, said through a spokesman he had not yet made a decision.

Nelson's action brought to four the number of Senate Democrats who have publicly backed Estrada. Bush needs five more senators to reach the 60 required to force an end to the debate and clear the way for a vote on confirmation.

Democratic foes insisted they have 44 senators lined up against Estrada, three more than needed to prevent a confirmation vote.

Democrats complain Estrada failed to answer a number of questions at his confirmation hearing last year, making him a ``stealth candidate.''

Critics also charge that Estrada, whose nomination has drawn a split response from the Hispanic community, is part of Bush's effort to pack the court with right-wing ideologues.

The fight is seen as a possible dress rehearsal for Bush's first U.S. Supreme Court nominee, who could be Estrada, if he wins the appeals court seat.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is considered the nation's second most powerful court since it often resolves disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government and rules on the constitutionality of federal laws and regulations.

Bush and fellow Republicans argue that the Honduran-born, Harvard-educated Estrada deserves to be confirmed, noting the American Bar Association gave him its highest rating.

Bush, in addressing The Latino Coalition, said, ``By blocking a vote on Miguel Estrada, some Democrats in the Senate are flaunting the intention of the United States Constitution.''

``Alexander Hamilton wrote that that the purpose of a Senate confirmation was to prevent the appointment of unfit characters,'' Bush said. ``No one can possibly call Miguel Estrada unfit.''

Hispanic members of the Bush administration arranged to visit to Capitol Hill to voice their support for Estrada on Wednesday while the head of the Congressional Hispanic Coalition reiterated his opposition.

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Texas Democrat, said no one has challenged Estrada's legal qualifications, but complained that he dodged questions at his confirmation hearing and in an interview with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Rodriguez said the Senate has the constitutional duty to advise and consent on judicial nominations and that is what it is doing.

Strategists See Victory In Stalemate Over Nominee


February 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 – President Bush and his fellow Republicans complain about Miguel Estrada's treatment at the hands of Senate Democrats, but some also see a political advantage for their party in the continuing fight over his nomination to an important appeals court.

Party strategists say they believe that determined Democratic resistance to a nominee of Hispanic heritage would help Republicans make inroads with a voting bloc crucial to their hold on power. And if the Honduran-born Mr. Estrada is confirmed, so much the better, these strategists say, putting Republicans in what a top Senate aide called a "win-win situation."

"I would say Republicans are on the high ground on Miguel Estrada," Senator George Allen of Virginia, chairman of National Republican Senatorial Committee, said this week as Democrats continued to oppose a vote on President Bush's nomination of Mr. Estrada to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "I surely think it will help us with Hispanic voters."

Mr. Bush, who on Saturday devoted his national radio address to Mr. Estrada, a Washington lawyer, stoked the flames again today, telling a group of Hispanic businesspeople who are backing Mr. Estrada that Democratic refusal to allow a vote was a "travesty, an injustice, being carried out by those responsible for helping to uphold justice in this country."

Democrats counter that their Hispanic supporters back them in the push to force Mr. Estrada to disclose more of his own views on important judicial issues before they allow a vote. They say Senate Republicans are keeping the issue on the floor because they have no legislation ready to offer. And they say it is typical of the Bush administration to promote a single conservative judicial candidate as representative of its stance on Hispanic issues rather than to offer more meaningful policy proposals.

"That is the Republican strategy when it comes to minorities," said Representative Charlie Gonzalez, Democrat of Texas, a former judge who is in the forefront of opposition to Mr. Estrada by the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "Form over substance."

The battle has divided Hispanic groups and led to advertising campaigns in a preview of the struggle for the allegiance of Hispanic voters in the 2004 election.

A coalition of liberal groups opposed to Mr. Estrada began running an advertisement this week suggesting that he is "stonewalling the public and the Senate." The advertisement was an effort to counter pro-Estrada advertisements by Republican and Hispanic groups. Those advocates, seeking to pressure individual Democratic senators into breaking with their party, have run advertisements in select states including Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and North Carolina, with one spot accusing Democrats of "intolerance."

Mr. Estrada's supporters picked up one new Democrat on Tuesday as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a state with a substantial Hispanic population, said he would vote for confirmation. Mr. Nelson is the fourth Democrat to back Mr. Estrada, leaving the 51 Republicans short of the 60 votes they would need to end the stalemate. Democrats say their remaining 44 votes are solid.

Republicans said they are not ready to try to force action, saying it would set a bad precedent by establishing a 60-vote threshold for judicial nominees. "Even though we would then use that action against a Democratic president's nominees, we don't think that is the best policy," said Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona. Mr. Kyl and other Republicans say they would prefer to keep the debate going in the hope of eventually getting a straight up or down vote they know they would win. They kept the Senate meeting late tonight to make recalcitrant Democrats pay a price for the fight.

Members of both parties say it is unclear whether the nomination fight would aid Republicans and Mr. Bush, who has made courting Hispanic voters a central element of his political strategy. But Bush allies like their chances. "It never hurts a Republican president to be seen battling on the side of talented Latinos getting jobs in his administration," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster.

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