Senate Republicans yesterday accused Democrats of “racial profiling” in holding up President Bush’s nomination of a Hispanic candidate to a high-profile federal appeals court seat.
“Liberal Democrats don’t want an Hispanic-American appointed to this significant court because they understand he could be one of the president’s first nominees on the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They are literally racially profiling this nomination.”
Mr. Bush in May nominated Miguel Estrada, whom Hispanics view as a prime example of the American dream, to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The appeals court is one step below the Supreme Court.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said the profiling includes ideology.
“Democrats on the committee seem to love minorities, as long as they are liberal,” Mr. Hatch said. “Miguel Estrada deserves to be on the court regardless of ideology.”
The Democrat-led Judiciary Committee has yet to hold a hearing for Mr. Estrada, 40, who served four years in the Clinton administration as an assistant to the solicitor general.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, denied through a spokesman that he is blocking the Estrada nomination out of racial bias.
“Can you even ask that with a straight face?” Leahy spokesman David Carle said. “It’s a ridiculous assertion.”
Another senior Republican senator said privately that he believes Mr. Estrada is being held back because of race. And the Traditional Values Coalition in Washington has called on Mr. Leahy “to stop playing racial politics with this nomination.”
The larger issue, Republicans say, is that Democrats have confirmed only 28 percent of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees this year, compared with 57 percent in the first year of the Clinton presidency and 62 percent in the first year of the elder President Bush’s administration.
Mr. Carle said the committee has acted first on nominations “where there is consensus.” Mr. Leahy said earlier through his spokesman that he was holding up the Estrada nomination because of Mr. Estrada’s “rigid ideological background.”
Some Hispanics, who are being aggressively courted by both parties for the 2004 presidential race, scoff at the accusation that Mr. Estrada is not qualified.
“For Senator Leahy to call Miguel Estrada controversial is simply preposterous,” said Robert Deposada, president of the Washington-based Latino Coalition. “The only controversy here is that Mr. Estrada is of Hispanic descent. We call on Senator Leahy to do what’s fair and allow an up or down vote on this extremely qualified judicial nominee.”
Mr. Estrada was born in Honduras and emigrated to the United States at age 17, speaking almost no English. He earned a degree from Harvard Law School and is a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in Washington.
Mr. Kyl said Mr. Bush “would like to be known as the president who appointed the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court.”
“Mr. Estrada is eminently qualified for that position, and the liberal Democrats know that,” Mr. Kyl said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and a Judiciary Committee member, said Mr. Leahy’s reputation for advancing minorities is beyond reproach.
“It’s so preposterous to make that accusation against Senator Leahy, he doesn’t deserve it,” Mr. Kennedy said. “He has demonstrated over a very distinguished career that he is one of the leaders in knocking down the walls of discrimination.”
Mr. Kennedy said there are “serious policy issues” with Mr. Estrada’s nomination.
Mr. Bush submitted his first batch of judicial nominations May 9, when Republicans held the majority in the Senate by a single vote. But the following month, before the Republicans had acted on any judicial nominations, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont threw control of the Senate to the Democrats by quitting the Republican Party to become an independent.
Since Democrats gained control, they have confirmed 18 of the 64 judicial candidates submitted by Mr. Bush. Democrats say that’s already better than the 15 judicial nominees approved in the first year of the elder Bush’s presidency.
“We’re actually going to be ahead of where the first Bush administration was in its first year, even though we only started in July,” said Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.
But the elder Mr. Bush submitted only 24 judicial nominations in his first year because there were fewer court vacancies.
Mr. Daschle said of Senate Republicans, “They’re responsible for the large number of vacancies because they refused to allow the confirmation of these judges in prior years.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he does not think Mr. Estrada is a victim of racial bias but believes the Democrats are “deliberately going slower” on Bush nominations.
“We haven’t even had hearings on some stellar nominees,” Mr. Sessions said. “I think with the vacancy rate we’ve got, we’ve got to pick up the pace. Are the Bush nominees receiving the same treatment as the Clinton nominees? To date, they have not.”
Republican leaders initially tried to block spending bills this fall to force Democrats to bring up more judicial nominations. But they abandoned the strategy when Mr. Daschle refused to be hurried.