WASHINGTON – Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are likely to face Democratic opposition Friday when committee members gather to vote on the appeals court nomination of Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada.
The Republican-controlled committee and Senate are trying to lend the White House and President Bush a hand in getting more conservative judges on the bench. Bush has lately been busy resending his picks for the bench to the Senate after Democrats last session failed to push through the chamber about 30 judicial nominations.
Estrada would be the first Hispanic judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, considered a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. However, his record does not give any clear indication of just how conservative he is, which is a vexing concern for Democrats.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the 19-member committee plans to vote on Estrada's nomination at it first meeting this week. Hatch's committee oversees confirmation of all judicial nominees.
Estrada, a member of the law firm that represented George W. Bush in his successful Supreme Court fight against Al Gore for the presidency after the Florida recount in November 2000, has been waiting for a committee vote since May 2001.
While some of those other more controversial nominations likely will have second hearings, Hatch said, "I'm not going to hold a hearing for Estrada."
Estrada testified before the committee in September, and pledged to set aside any personal or political opinions if confirmed.
"I'm very firmly of the view that although we all have views on a number of subjects from A to Z, the job of a judge is to subconsciously put that aside and look at each case — starting by withholding judgment — with an open mind and listen to the parties," he said.
But during the five-hour confirmation hearing, Democrats repeatedly argued that Estrada lacked judicial experience and gave them little to chew on. Also, during that inquisition, Estrada refused to answer questions about specific cases, leaving Democrats to suggest that he is hiding something. The Justice Department's solicitor general's office, where Estrada used to work, refused to release copies of memos and opinions he produced while employed there.
Republicans are quick to move on Estrada and other nominees now that they have a better chance of getting their judicial agenda accomplished this year.
Unlike the 107th Congress, the panel now has 10 Republicans and nine Democrats, which means Republicans don't need a single Democratic vote to send a nominee to the Senate floor for a vote.
But Judiciary Democrats aren't going to take the vote sitting down.
Instead of casting their yeas and nays, Democrats are likely to ask for a one-week delay that has traditionally been approved for any Judiciary Committee member.
"I'd be very surprised if the vote happened," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
But the delay is only temporary. If postponed this week, the nomination would still be up for another committee vote next week on Jan. 30 at the panel's next meeting. That would still make Estrada the first Judiciary Committee vote of the year.
Estrada has been a favorite of the GOP since his nomination 20 months ago. He is a conservative Hispanic who has frequently been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee if a position opens during Bush's administration.
The president himself personally called for Estrada's confirmation in October.
"There are senators who would rather not give him the benefit of the doubt, senators looking for a reason to defeat him as opposed to looking for a reason to herald his intelligence, his capabilities, his talent," Bush said.
Republicans have been moving aggressively on judicial nominations since sweeping the November midterm elections. Bush this month renominated all the judicial nominees who were not confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate, including two who were voted down in committee — Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering and Texas Judge Priscilla Owen.
Republicans are eager to move on Owen's nomination to the Fifth Circuit Court, whom they consider to have impeccable credentials as a Texas Supreme Court judge. The eagerness may be in part due to the GOP's desire to move away from the image that Pickering may reflect on the party.
Senate Democrats have argued that Pickering was too lenient in a case involving racist criminals and seemed to sympathize with segregationists during the civil rights movement despite taking on the Ku Klux Klan while a prosecutor.
With the fallout from remarks made by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a close friend of Pickering who got into trouble with sentiments considered by many to be segregationist in nature, Republicans are hoping the nominations of Owen and Estrada will highlight the party's commitment to moving women and Hispanics onto the federal bench.
Bush plans to make more nominations to fill the federal judiciary's 62 vacancies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.