When he spoke in support of federal judicial nominee Miguel Estrada at a recent news conference, Jacob Monty masked his harsh criticism of opponents in Spanish. He said Latinos who are fighting against the Bush administration's choice for a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit "no tienen vergüenza" -- have no shame.
That comment by Monty, a former chairman of the Texas-based Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, was just one shot in a bitter war of words that has divided Latino politicians and civil rights organizations in ways rarely seen.
It followed one fired by Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.), a member of the Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which opposes the nominee. "Being Hispanic for us," Menendez said, "means much more than having a surname" -- a statement his critics understood to imply that Estrada is not "Hispanic enough."
The name-calling has reminded some observers of the bitterness among African Americans during the Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas -- a hearing that Thomas, a conservative black man, likened to a lynching after liberal activists persuaded Anita Hill, a former assistant, to come forward with sexual harassment allegations against him.
Latino activists have differing perceptions of who Estrada is and what kind of judge he would be.
Estrada's supporters say he is a Latino success story, immigrating as he did from Honduras at age 17 and going on to graduate from Columbia College at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and clerking for Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. He is now a partner with the District law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a nominee for a judgeship on what is considered the nation's second most powerful court because it has jurisdiction over all appeals regarding federal regulatory agencies.
Opponents question whether Estrada appreciates the interests of poor people -- his family came from the Honduran elite -- and say his conservative politics would color his decisions on the bench. They say Estrada has a low regard for hard-won civil rights protections that benefit Latinos.
Ideological wars over federal judicial nominations are nothing new, but the fight among Latinos offers a small window on how what will soon be the nation's largest ethnic minority is divided by ideology and geography.
Of the Latino community's three most influential groups, each has taken a different position on Estrada's nomination. The League of United Latin American Citizens, based in Texas, supports it; the Mexican American Defense and Educational Fund, in California, opposes it, and the National Council of La Raza, in Washington, has remained neutral.
The fuse for the current debate was lit in June, when members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Estrada in the basement of the Capitol. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.) said the nominee at first looked uncomfortable as he stared at the faces of 16 Democrats across the long boardroom table.
"We wanted to make sure the nominee appreciates what the court system means for Latinos," Gonzalez said recently. Estrada was not available for comment.
"We wanted him to give us some idea of how the role of a judge impacts minority communities, and it just wasn't there."
Two weeks later, the caucus returned a recommendation opposing Estrada's nomination to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then controlled by Democrats. Latino civil rights groups read the recommendation, then met among themselves.
In October, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) voted to support Estrada.
"It was just very difficult for us not to support the guy, given his impeccable credentials," said Hector Flores, president of the Texas-based group. "It's the American dream, rising up from Honduras the way he has. The battle isn't whether he's conservative; it's that he represents Latinos, whether we like him or not."
Flores said the vote to support Estrada was overwhelming, but in recent days the California state delegation of LULAC broke away from the national group in opposing the nominee. In a Feb. 12 statement, a former president of LULAC, Mario Obledo, opposed the nominee because of his "sparse record" on civil and constitutional rights issues, and because he declined to answer questions about his record in Senate hearings.
LULAC's overall support was backed by Monty, the former chairman of AAMA. His assertion that Estrada's opponents were shameless was broadcast on C-SPAN and remembered by Flores, who was present. Monty did not return several calls seeking comment.
President Bush tried to keep up the pressure yesterday by giving an interview to the Spanish-language Telemundo network, and vigorously urged senators to confirm Estrada.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) recently said that Estrada's Democratic opponents were "anti-Latino," and brought howls from his liberal colleagues and from leaders of Latino organizations across the land.
Marisa Demeo, regional counsel for the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Hatch failed to mention three Latinos nominated for judgeships by the Clinton administration whom Republican senators opposed. Those nominations -- of Jorge Rangel, Enrique Moreno and Christine Arguello -- were returned to President Bill Clinton without a hearing or vote.
Demeo said LULAC and AAMA back Estrada for cosmetic reasons. "Because he's Latino, they would support him," she said. "They've been very strong in thinking there should be a Latino sitting on the D.C. Circuit, and we say it is important, but not at such a cost."
The cost, she said, would be the weakening of civil rights laws. "The groups opposing have taken the analysis a step further," Demeo said. "We look at the record to determine what kind of judge Mr. Estrada would be."
MALDEF is supported by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southwest Voter Registration Project and the Hispanic caucus, among other groups.
"I don't know why the administration put up Estrada," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. "He was marked as a right-wing ideologue some time ago. Clearly, that is a tactic by the Bush administration not to really embrace issues that are important to Latinos, but to try symbolic measures." Photo: (Terry Ashe -- AP) SEE RELATED NEWS: -- "Supporters Plan Ads for Estrada"
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