Why the Estrada nomination matters

In a major setback for President Bush's efforts to fill judiciary vacancies, Democratic senators Thursday sustained their filibuster of controversial federal appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada. Senate Republicans have enough votes to confirm Estrada, but failed to produce the 60 votes they needed to stop the ongoing Democratic filibuster. To gauge the impact of Thursday vote, csmonitor.com's Josh Burek spoke with Monitor White House correspondent Linda Feldmann.

csmonitor.com: Why has the federal court judgeship nomination of Miguel Estrada become so charged?

Feldmann: The Democrats have decided to fight this nomination for both political and substantive reasons. Politically, they have few other avenues for taking on the Republicans, now that the GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress. The Democrats are sending a message to the Republicans: This is something we can do, so we're doing it. They're also sending a signal that this is what they'll do if Bush nominates a conservative for the Supreme Court - and there may be one or two vacancies there by this summer.

Substantively, the Democrats are trying to derail what they see as the Bush juggernaut to make the federal judiciary conservative. The irony is that the Democrats are opposing Estrada on the grounds that he has not been forthcoming about his judicial philosophy. But they say they already know that he's very conservative, and so must be stopped.

What makes this battle particularly charged is the fact that Estrada is Hispanic - and the Hispanic population, now the US's biggest minority, is increasingly important come election time. Hispanics tend to vote Democratic, but they're not nearly as solidly in the Democratic camp as African Americans, and both parties are fighting hard to woo the Hispanic vote. Republicans believe that if the Democrats defeat Estrada, they (Republicans) will have a golden campaign issue.

csmonitor.com: What motivates Democrats -and left-leaning groups across the country - to oppose his nomination?

Feldmann: Democrats are motivated by Estrada's conservatism. They fear he will roll back the civil rights gains that minorities in the US have made in recent decades. They are also engaging in political payback. During Clinton's presidency, Republicans repeatedly blocked judicial nominees and the Democrats are exacting revenge. Of course, this "war of judicial nominations" was going on well before Clinton became president, but it has only gotten uglier in recent years.

csmonitor.com: The Estrada case follows a string of controversial judicial nominations. Will the politics of revenge cloud the nominations process in coming years?

Feldmann: Yes, there's no sign that either side wants to stop the war.

csmonitor.com: What must change to smoothe and speed the process?

Feldmann: To change the constitutional provision that the Senate provide "advise and consent" to federal judicial nominations would require an amendment to the Constitution, but no one is suggesting that. This advice and consent provision is a standard feature of the American system of checks and balances in government. In an earlier era, there was a presumption that the Senate should pay deference to the president's judicial choices. That presumption is now gone. To change the process, the extremely partisan tone in Washington would need to cool down.

csmonitor.com: This is the first significant political blow to President Bush since the midterm elections. With so many priorities on his agenda, what strategy will he take to fill judicial vacancies now?

Feldmann: He may just have to give up on Estrada. But the Republicans are in a win-win situation. Either Estrada wins his judgeship, or if he loses, the Republicans have a campaign issue for 2004. The Democrats are gambling that a federal judicial nomination is too "inside the Beltway" and that your average voter isn't paying attention. They may well be right. Still, Estrada's story is pretty compelling: immigrant to the US from Honduras at age 17, speaking poor English, graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerk, law partner in private practice, and now nominee to the second highest court in the land. In addition, Estrada has a stutter, and so he is portrayed as disabled. All told, he is a sympathetic character, and the Republicans are trying to make the Democrats look like the bad guys on this.

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