WASHINGTON – The possibility of two Supreme Court vacancies — following Sandra Day O'Connor's (search) planned retirement and speculation surrounding Chief Justice William Rehnquist (search) — increases chances that President Bush will nominate the court's first Hispanic justice, observers say.
That nomination would be a milestone for America's fastest-growing minority group, whose vote is heavily coveted by politicians. At the same time, it could magnify the split between conservative and liberal Hispanic groups if a battle breaks out over the nominee's ideology.
Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo., say a qualified Hispanic shouldn't have a problem being confirmed.
"I think that all of them have to live up to the same standards, and that is: Are they qualified? Are they going to be fair and impartial people on the bench?" Salazar said recently. Martinez added: "I believe a good, qualified Hispanic who happens to be a conservative will get a fair hearing."
Court observers say it becomes more likely that Bush will pick a Hispanic if there is more than one position open on the high court. O'Connor announced her retirement last week; Rehnquist, 80 years old and fighting cancer, has not made any announcement but is being watched closely.
The names most often mentioned as possible Hispanic nominees are Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) — the first Latino attorney general and a close friend of the president — and Judge Emilio Garza (search) of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Garza was President George H.W. Bush's second choice for the Supreme Court after Clarence Thomas.
Longshot candidates include U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa of Texas; Judge Edward Prado, also of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals; Chief Judge Danny Boggs, a Cuba native, of the 6th Circuit appeals court in Cincinnati; Judges Jose Cabranes and Sonia Sotomayor of the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court; and Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero III.
A possible Gonzales nomination has already drawn fire from some conservatives, including Hispanics, who don't think he's conservative enough.
"Gonzales will divide the Republican base in an extraordinary fashion like no other nominee," said Manuel Miranda, chairman of the conservative Third Branch Conference.
Some of the president's Hispanic supporters say he owes them a conservative nomination.
"The presence of the Latino vote, and specifically the conservative Latino vote of past elections, grant to our community the right to claim that the next associate Supreme Court judge be a Latino," said Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino and Christian Ministries, which represents more than 6,000 evangelical churches in 31 states.
Hispanics are a highly prized voter base, and Republicans have made increased effort to court their support. Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 re-election, compared with 35 percent four years earlier, according to exit polls.
Putting a Hispanic on the high court would cement Bush's legacy and also help the Republican Party, said Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law.
"The perception is that it would court that vote," he said.
It is unrealistic to expect all Hispanic groups to support a particular nominee, said Lauren Cohen Bell, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.
"There are various Hispanic groups, some more conservative than others," she said. "I don't think there's consensus on what the 'right' kind of Hispanic nominee would be, just as there wouldn't be a consensus on what the 'right' kind of African-American nominee would be or the 'right' kind of female nominee would be."
Democrats, with support from liberal Latino groups, thwarted Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada's (search) appeals court nomination during Bush's first term.
One conservative group, the Latino Coalition, called the Estrada blockade a "partisan lynching," echoing a charge that Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, the second black to serve on the Supreme Court, made before the Senate confirmed him by a 52-48 vote in 1991. Thomas equated Senate hearings over sexual harassment allegations made against him to "a high-tech lynching."
One of the major liberal groups, the Alliance for Justice, has set up a committee called Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary to help battle accusations that a Hispanic nominee could be opposed because of his ethnicity.
"There was an attempt during the Miguel Estrada nomination to say that if you were against Estrada you were against Hispanics," said Dolores Huerta, an alliance leader and co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union.