WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft "strongly urged" the Senate to confirm the nomination of Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Miguel Estrada's nomination is a testament to his talent, his perseverance and his intelligence. He is superbly qualified. He has been praised by a broad range of supporters, including prominent Democrats," Ashcroft said Tuesday after emerging from a meeting with federal judiciary officials assembled at the Supreme Court. "I strongly urge the Senate to confirm Miguel Estrada to be the first Hispanic-American to sit on the D.C. Court of Appeals."
The Senate is expected to take up the Estrada nomination on Thursday. He was nominated 506 days ago, in May 2001, along with 10 other nominees.
A confirmation could put Estrada, an American of Honduran descent, in position to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. The District Court is known as a stepping stone for Supreme Court justices. Three current justices -- Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- sat on that appeals court.
But Democrats plan to stand in Estrada's way. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the leading opponents to Bush's drive to put conservatives on the federal bench, scheduled a hearing Tuesday on the D.C. Circuit and the importance of "ideological balance" on what is called the nation's second highest court.
Democrats accused Republicans of stalling former President Clinton's nominees for the D.C. appeals court in hopes of putting conservatives in those slots. No one has been confirmed for the court in five years.
Ashcroft called the vacancy rate in the judiciary an alarming crisis, adding "it is simply imperative that our third branch of government -- the judiciary -- be fully staffed to operate at maximum efficiency."
Seventy-seven vacancies exist in the courts, 10 more than when the 106th Congress adjourned before the 2000 election. Ashcroft said 13 of those vacancies are emergencies, and need to be filled immediately. There are seven vacancies out of 16 seats in the 6th Circuit Court that covers Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee.
But whether Estrada will be the next Appeals Court justice in the District remains to be seen. Already Democrats have twice used their one-member majority to defeat Bush nominees on party-line votes.
Estrada, by all accounts, has a brilliant legal mind. The American Bar Association calls him well-qualified, having argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court, and winning 10 of them.
A partner in the law firm that helped win the presidency for Bush during the Florida election recount, Estrada came to the United States at age 17 from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. He quickly learned English and ultimately graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986.
"It's amazing what he's been able to accomplish," said Solicitor General Ted Olson, Estrada's former law partner.
To his critics, Estrada, a naturalized citizen, did not suffer the same struggles as many immigrants. The son of a lawyer and bank president, Estrada lived a life of privilege in Honduras, according to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"Mr. Estrada has not lived the educationally or economically disadvantaged life his proponents would have others believe," said Juan Figueroa, the group's president. "Nor have Mr. Estrada's life experiences resembled or been shared with those of Latinos who have experienced discrimination or struggled with poverty, indifference or unfairness."
At his nomination hearing Thursday, Estrada, like all of Bush's appeals court nominees, will be asked if he can keep his personal views on issues apart from his duties as a judge. Estrada has said that he can judge without favor to any side.
"In my view, federal judges may decide only concrete cases or controversies that properly come to them," he said in response to a questionnaire from the Senate committee. "They may not 'make law' or reach beyond the facts and circumstances of the particular case they must decide."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.