Filibustering on Estrada

Few of George W. Bush's judicial nominees have generated as much opposition as has Miguel Estrada. The AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club and the American Association of University Women have all come out against placing Estrada on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Despite the best efforts of Senate Judiciary Committee chair Orrin Hatch to portray the Estrada nomination as an example of Republican empowerment of Hispanics, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project reviewed Estrada's record on civil rights issues and announced their opposition.

"A thorough review of his sparse record indicates he would probably make rulings that roll back the civil rights of Latinos. Simply being a Latino does not make one qualified to be a judge," argues MALDEF president Antonia Hernandez.

Now Senate Democrats, who blocked Estrada in committee while they were in control, are taking a stand. Minority leader Tom Daschle's announcement on Feb. 11 that at least 41 Democrats would support a filibuster to prevent a floor vote on Estrada's nomination set up the most serious confrontation yet over the President's drive to pack the federal courts with conservative judicial activists. Democrats overcame their caution about mounting floor fights to block judicial nominees in large part because of the refusal by Estrada and the White House to share basic information about the nominee. Democrats want to force the Bush Administration to release memoranda that Estrada wrote when he worked in the office of the Solicitor General in the Justice Department.

"Until that information is provided, we will not be in a position to allow a vote to come to the Senate floor," says Daschle.

The Administration and Senate majority leader Bill Frist are determined to fight for Estrada, who has long been touted as a potential Supreme Court pick. And the President is already condemning the filibuster. But Democrats are arguing, with some force, that Estrada's refusal to cooperate with the Judiciary Committee makes this more than just another nomination fight.

"By remaining silent Mr. Estrada only buttressed the fear that he's a far-right stealth nominee" who will "drive the nation's second most important court out of the mainstream," says New York Democrat Charles Schumer.

Will the 41 Democrats needed to sustain it hold firm? "For now, yes," says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice. "I think the Democrats are mad about the Administration's refusal to release information that was requested by the senators, and I think they really are concerned by what they already know about Estrada." But, she adds, Estrada's nomination will be beaten only if Democratic senators -- and moderate Republicans -- hear from constituents. "If they continue to feel pressure from the grassroots, and if they don't buckle, this could be the fight where we signal that the Senate is not going to rubber-stamp extreme nominees."

John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation.

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