WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee members voted on a 10-9 party line vote Thursday to confirm attorney Miguel Estrada to become the first Hispanic on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Democrats had tried to hold up the vote, arguing that there has not been enough time to consider the nomination of a man whose record they barely know. Estrada was nominated in May 2001.
The vote must now go to the full Senate for a vote before sending Estrada to the powerful court, which has been the launching ground for three Supreme Court nominees. Estrada, a member of the law firm that represented President Bush in his successful Supreme Court fight for the presidency, is considered a potential Supreme Court nominee should a vacancy occur while Bush is in the White House.
Republicans on the committee said Democratic efforts to delay the vote was an attempt to keep Hispanic conservatives off the bench regardless of their qualifications.
"One new obstacle that Hispanics face today is the attempt by some Washington political operatives to smear anyone who would be a positive role model for Hispanics and who might be a constitutionalist rather than a liberal judicial activist, or might be conservative or perish the thought, Republican," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Added Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "If we deny Mr. Estrada the position on the D.C. Circuit, it would be to shut the door on the American dream of Hispanic-Americans everywhere. Not that that should be the basis for our confirmation, but it's obviously very much a fringe benefit."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Judiciary Democrat, called the accusations "offensive and absurd."
"The fact that a nominee is Latino should not be a shield from full inquiry, especially when a nominee's record is as sparse as is Mr. Estrada's," Leahy said.
Democrats said they wanted more time because Estrada lacks judicial experience and refused last year to answer questions about specific cases.
"I have to tell you it was sort of reminiscent of Clarence Thomas telling America that he had never discussed Roe versus Wade and had no views on this case whatsoever," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "It's just not credible. It's not believable that this nominee has no critical views on any Supreme Court case."
"By remaining silent, Mr. Estrada only buttressed the fear that he's a far-right stealth nominee, a sphinxlike candidate who will drive the nation's second most important court out of the mainstream," Schumer added.
Estrada, in a five-hour confirmation hearing last year, insisted he could 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," Estrada said at the time.
Estrada, 41, came to the United States as a teenager from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. He quickly learned English, thrived in school and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986. He has since practiced constitutional law and has argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court.
Similar charges of discrimination by the parties have arisen before.
The last disputed Hispanic nominee, Mexican-American Richard A. Paez, waited four years -- longer than any other nominee in history -- before being confirmed for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the Republican-controlled Senate in 2000.
Also in 2000, the Congressional Black Caucus accused Senate Republicans of being sexist and racist for not voting for Clinton's minority judicial candidates, including Roger Gregory, who eventually became the first black judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans denied the charge.
Only after Bush took office and Democrats took over the Senate Judiciary Committee did Gregory get confirmed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.