News Column

Democrats and Judicial Nominee Estrada Clash at Hearing

September 30, 2002

Tom Brune


WASHINGTON - At the end of a full day of testimony by controversial Bush appellate court candidate Miguel Estrada Thursday, Democrats said they had more questions than when they started.

That message did not bode well for Estrada, a conservative Republican nominated by President George W. Bush in May 2001 to become the first Latino on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and potentially the Supreme Court.

Estrada's confirmation hearing featured several heated exchanges between Republicans and Democrats. And after Estrada changed an answer to a question about allegations in a Nation magazine article, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was concerned about the nominee's "credibility."

The frustration expressed by Democrats who control the Senate Judiciary Committee with a one-vote margin suggests that Estrada, who waited 16 months for yesterday's hearing, will wait even longer for a vote.

"I've never met a nominee for judge who has said as little about his record and views as he has," said Schumer, who chaired the hearing. "We end up today with more questions than we had at the beginning of the day."

Schumer said he was particularly concerned that when he asked Estrada to discuss three Supreme Court cases that have already been decided, Estrada refused, as he had all day, because he thought it inappropriate and said he would have to, in effect, repeat a judge's deliberations before commenting.

Schumer said that means committee Democrats will continue to press for internal briefs Estrada wrote as an assistant in the office of the Solicitor General, which acts as the federal government's lawyer, briefs the Justice Department has refused to turn over because of the confidentiality of the work.

"My inclination is that we shouldn't move forward unless we get those memos," Schumer said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the release of the briefs a "false issue" and said Democrats would use it to put off a confirmation vote for Estrada until next spring.

The most heated exchanges came over an article in the liberal magazine Nation. The article quotes an anonymous lawyer who sought help from Estrada, who was screening clerk candidates for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Estrada had been a clerk.

"Miguel told me, 'No way. You're way too liberal.'" the article said, adding that Estrada said his job was to screen out liberals because one had influenced Kennedy to side with liberals on a gay rights case.

Estrada denied he had made the statement or screened out liberals. But after a break, Estrada said he had reconsidered and could not give an unqualified answer to a four-part question by Schumer.

"I would not want anybody to think that this man [Kennedy] who is at the pinnacle of his legal life is a dupe who can be sort of moved one way or another by 22-year-olds," Estrada said. He also said he tried to screen out "extreme ideologues."

Schumer said, "I think we have some credibility problems here."

Hatch said the committee never allowed anonymous accusations and that Schumer's treatment of Estrada was "offensive."

Source: Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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