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Judging Estrada: Democrats' Gamble Could Help Bush
March 9, 2003
Having lost control of the Senate in 2002 elections, the Democrats have turned sour grapes into a bitter fight over President George W. Bush's historic nomination of a Latino immigrant to the appellate bench in Washington.
Democrats vow to continue to filibuster Miguel Estrada's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Fight it based on "principle." Fight it to the bitter end.
The end will be bitter, but there's little principle in the Democrats' cause. It's all political posturing, a trial run for the 2004 presidential election that serves to put Bush on notice about the battles ahead over any Supreme Court nominee.
Republicans are hoping that Democrats' obstreperousness will help Bush secure re-election with the help of the Latino vote in two years. For sure, the backlash against the Senate Democrats' blockade is growing. At least four Democrats, including Florida's Bill Nelson, have broken with party ranks to support a vote on Estrada.
Conspicuously absent from this debate is Sen. Bob Graham, who's running for president and, at last count, remains undecided. If Graham were to vote to end the filibuster, would he jeopardize his party's nomination? Or does he tow the liberal party line and write off Florida's substantial Cuban-American vote -- backing he has secured in past Senate bids -- figuring it would be a no-win in a national contest against the exiles' favorite anti-Castro hard-line son, George W. Bush?
I know. Graham's recovering from open-heart surgery. Good reason not to have voted last week to end the filibuster. But what's Graham's excuse for not publicly stating, at least, his opinion on Estrada?
It's not just conservatives who are bothered. Many Hispanic moderates and independents are appalled that Senate Democrats would try to stop a vote. Estrada is no Clarence Thomas, though Democratic leaders are treating him as if he hadn't a clue about the law or the ethical backbone to serve as judge.
Estrada has been ranked as "most qualified" by the American Bar Association. He's a Harvard grad with vast experience, arguing 15 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court for the U.S. Solicitor General's Office during the Bush (the elder) and Clinton administrations. He even took on a pro-bono death penalty case, which should be a plus for the liberals.
But no. Some Democrats blame Estrada's "silence" on such constitutional issues as privacy (aka abortion rights). Odd because Estrada answered the Senate Judiciary panel's questions with the same type of measured response that other confirmed judges have used. On the right to privacy, Estrada said, "The Supreme Court has so held" that right, and added he has "no view of any nature whatsoever that would keep me from applying that case law faithfully."
About Roe v. Wade, he said, "It is the law." And later, "I will follow it."
What more do Democrats want? They want to know Estrada's personal beliefs on abortion, but that's not ethically appropriate. Judicial candidates should be asked about their philosophy -- do they believe in judicial precedent, for instance? Do they adhere to or abhor judicial activism? They shouldn't be asked about specific legal issues that may come before the court.
There's another intriguing political puzzle to Estrada's nomination: his heritage. Were Estrada of Mexican or Puerto Rican heritage his historic nomination might have a very different trajectory even if it did come from a conservative president. But, alas, Estrada was born in Honduras. So Hispanic Democrats in Congress -- most of them of Puerto Rican or Mexican ancestry -- may feel their constituents don't much care about a Honduran-American getting on the bench.
All voters should care about the democratic process and simple fairness, though. Estrada deserves a vote, up or down. Graham, who's made tough calls before, should give Estrada that courtesy.