News Column

Deadlock Over Estrada Deepens

February 13, 2003

Helen Dewar

The White House yesterday emphatically rejected a demand by Senate Democrats for internal Justice Department memoranda written by judicial nominee Miguel Estrada, intensifying a partisan deadlock that could scuttle the controversial nomination.

Democrats earlier claimed enough votes to sustain a filibuster against confirmation of the conservative Hispanic lawyer for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. They vowed to block a vote until the memos were released and Estrada more fully answered questions about his legal views.

Moving swiftly in response, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales said in a 15-page letter to Democratic leaders that they were demanding more of Estrada than they did of other nominees and accused them of setting a "double standard . . . that is highly unfair and inappropriate."

"Based on our reading of history, we believe that you have ample information about this nominee and have had more than enough time to consider questions about his qualifications and suitability," Gonzales wrote. "We urge you to stop the unfair treatment, end the filibuster, allow an up-or-down vote and vote to confirm Mr. Estrada."

Estrada, who was born in Honduras and educated at Harvard, was nominated by Bush nearly two years ago. His nomination, the first to come before the Senate since Republicans took over last month, is being treated by both parties as an important test of wills in the struggle over Bush's conservative choices for the federal bench.

Democrats have called Estrada a "stealth" nominee whose views are being kept under wraps to hide an ideological agenda for the court.

Gonzales acknowledged Democratic claims that the Justice Department had released some internal memos during confirmation proceedings, but said they were narrowly targeted requests for specific information and that all occurred before 1977. In no way, he said, did they "alter the fundamental and longstanding principle" that memos from the Office of Solicitor General, where Estrada worked as an attorney, must remain protected "so as to maintain the integrity of the executive branch's decision-making process."

Gonzales also disputed Democrats' arguments that Estrada evaded questions about his judicial philosophy, saying he answered questions as fully as other judicial nominees have done. He said few Democrats bothered to submit follow-up questions after a Judiciary Committee hearing on Estrada's nomination late last year.

Democrats, who believe they have at least three more votes than the 41 needed to sustain a filibuster, showed no sign of relenting in the face of the White House response.

"I regret that the White House remains recalcitrant and continues to stand in the way of a solution to this impasse," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Leahy and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) had asked the White House for the memos.

"I hope that after getting this letter off its chest, the administration will now begin to work with us," Leahy added. "If they did, we could end the stalemate they've created."

Source: Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company

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