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How Could They?

Judiciary Committee, Latino organizations "gang up" on court nominee

By Fernando Oaxaca
Published on LatinoLA: September 30, 2002


How Could They?


It was like watching a suspense movie for the second time; you know the hero is walking into a trap but you can?t warn him and you know pretty much that he will take a beating before it?s over. As Miguel Estrada?s inquisition began last Thursday, September 26th, in the hallowed shakedown headquarters of the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, his mother, his wife and his sister sat quietly and expectantly behind him, Miguel sat alone, bespectacled and serene, at the long witness table which normally seats 8-10 people, facing the Committee. Like thousands of his confirmation-seeking predecessors, [who have] come in the past to pay their respects and bare their souls to the two-tiered bank of Senators 25 or 30 feet in front of them, Miguel Estrada played the game of initial cordiality with Chairman Charles Schumer (D) of New York.

Schumer began a near-embarrassing charade of camaraderie among professionals by asking Miguel to introduce his relatives and his spouse. As Miguel introduced Clara Casta?eda, his mother, to the hearing, Schumer drew forth from some reservoir of canned politeness, a welcome and seemingly warm grin of momentary affability, never seen again in the ensuing three hours. After the introductions, the Democrat Senators began their real agenda; to take one of the brightest judicial appointees of the season, who happened to be Latino, and see if they could find a credible way to discredit him or otherwise find him ineligible for office, despite his astoundingly lofty credentials, his extensive bi-partisan support from colleagues -- private sector and governmental -- past supervisors and his profession-at-large.

The three chief inquisitors, Schumer and Senators Patrick Leahy and Teddy Kennedy, used every trick in the book of Senate-hearing appointment assassination on the exceedingly polite and super-cool Miguel. Their attacks were made somewhat less damaging by valiant attempts by senior minority member, Senator Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Republican Senators Sessions and Broadback to dull the relentless, unfair and repetitive blows of the Democrats. But they did not control; they could only chastise their Democrat colleagues for shameless browbeating of Estrada and persist in repeating the career highlights and scholastic achievements of this recipient of the ABA?s top recommendation. They also noted that former Vice President Al Gore?s chief of staff and President Bill Clinton?s Solicitor General both praised the professionalism, talents and suitability of Estrada to be an Appellate Court Judge, as President George W. Bush intended.

The Judiciary Three used two major weapons for their "hearing," admitting almost from the beginning that professional merit, proper and outstanding qualifications and overall credentials were not at issue! In a striking declaration, Senator Schumer, behind his obnoxiously irritating half-grin, revealed that the name of the game was ideology, plain and simple. He then revealed the first two of his weapons. The first, a handy shield for avoiding mention of Estrada?s ethnicity, began with a demand for Estrada to explain the blatantly expressed objections of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) to his confirmation. Miguel told about the mostly cordial meeting he had with the PRLDF people. Schumer swiftly then asked why they had told the committee that Estrada had called them "boneheaded" and wasn?t this an indication of intemperate behavior, undesirable in a judge.

Estrada explained that one PRLDF individual said to Estrada that he was "insufficiently Hispanic" to serve as a judge. Looking Schumer right in the eye, Estrada said he found the remark "offensive and boneheaded!" Estrada also related that the PRLDF people took offense in that he would not express his views or opinions on issues of interest to them, the Puerto Rican group. Schumer gave no recognition at all of the very appropriate posture Estrada took with the PRLDEF, that a prospective judge should not discuss publicly how he feels about a matter or issue that could someday come before him in a future case.

Schumer then shifted gears but stayed on the ethnic track, asking why Estrada, in effect, had failed to convince the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that they should support him. Miguel told the committee about their questions about his family and economic background and how they gravitated to the same ploy of the Puerto Ricans. The Caucus people tried repeatedly and aggressively to get Estrada to reveal his views on issues around civil rights, affirmative action and other matters of the type "concerning" the Caucus. Miguel, by reminding them that it was inappropriate for him to discuss his views on such matters, had a similar effect on Caucus members. They questioned his allegiance to the "community" and his support for Latino causes and proceeded to send a slamming letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. They told the Committee that he did not meet their criteria of community involvement, judicial temperament, and potential "fairness" in dealing with Latinos or "their" issues that might come before him as judge.

The PRLDEF and Hispanic Caucus declarations of non-support were at least clear and overt. Three other reliably liberal but prominent non-profit and allegedly non-political groups, MALDEF (Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), the National Council of La Raza and the California La Raza Lawyers, perhaps fearful of exposing their true convictions, nevertheless provided the Democrat-controlled Committee with deadly ethnic ammunition. With obvious intent of derailing the nomination, they apparently issued publicly and collectively this mealy-mouthed statement: "Based on our investigations, we are not clear on whether Estrada would be fair to accused Latinos or to others who might appear before him with claims under the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments and the due process clauses of the Constitution."

In other words, these hoary, used-to-be champions of Latino civil rights were telling the non-Hispanic U.S. Senate that this naturalized Honduran immigrant, with a Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia and magna cum laude from Harvard, "very well qualified" per the ABA, and having served for years under two American Presidents, Bush 41 and Clinton, in the office of Assistant Solicitor General of the United States?.could not be trusted to follow his oath of office; "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." In fact, they themselves were depriving Miguel of "due process" and his right to a "fair trial (hearing)"!

Unbelievable!

After exhausting the ethnicity ploy at the hearing, Chairman Schumer dragged out the second shameful technique for achieving a "gotcha" on the witness. Angering even the usually unflappable Senator Hatch, Schumer asked Estrada to explain allegations from anonymous individuals mentioned in a magazine article that Miguel had abused his role as interviewer of prospective clerks for Supreme Court Justice Kennedy by screening out "liberal" candidates. After repeated denials by Miguel and with the obvious protest that he could not remember such comments as related to an anonymous individual, the Senator switched to the fruitless PRLDEF/Hispanic Caucus technique of attempting to elicit Estrada?s views on Roe Vs. Wade and, in one sweeping question, asked the appointee what three U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the last 40 years Estrada disagreed with! Miguel quietly and patiently explained to Schumer that he could not second guess any previous Supreme Court decision without having been there and having read all the material presented and heard witnesses and participating attorneys. Chairman Schumer noticeably squirmed and voiced his displeasure with this sensible and disarming response from Estrada.

And so it went--for three excruciating hours; supercilious smiles from the Democrat Senators accompanying their repetitive tries at trapping the brilliant Latino lawyer and the Republican Senators reminding the C-Span audience of Estrada?s credentials and record?..since their Democrat Senatorial colleagues were uninterested in the same.

Miguel Estrada avoided the ambush, the Committee trap??in this bad suspense movie. His testimony and demeanor should serve to influence almost any fair-minded observer of the hearing that he will make an outstanding jurist. His Democrat inquisitors came through mostly as unprincipled and second-rate; their rapier-like thrusts against the seemingly un-armored Estrada repeatedly missed the target. Miguel?s intellect and photographic memory of past court rulings shielded him from every hapless Democrat Senatorial lunge. If there is a shred of justice left in the United States Senate, Miguel will yet be confirmed??as recommended by the normally liberal Washington Post editorial this past Sunday, three days after the hearing.

But perhaps the biggest losers in this stereotypical Beltway exercise in Senatorial probity were the Latino organizations that engaged in what appeared to be orchestrated attacks on Miguel Estrada?s integrity, professionalism and, unbelievably, his national origin and ethnicity. By their behavior, they lost any semblance of loyalty to Latinismo and to their own ideals for talented Latinos going into public life. In fact, the web-site of the PRLDEF prominently displays currently:

New Report from, PRLDEF!
Opening the Courthouse Doors:
The Need for More Hispanic Judges by Angelo Falc?n

Seeing this, can anyone imagine a more hypocritical act than what they tried to do to the Estrada nomination? Can any rational human being have seen Miguel kiss his mother, Clara Casta?eda, a short little woman with a shyly-smiling, beige-hued Spanish face, then touch his sister?s hand, and finally return to the witness chair for the beginning of questioning?.and declare that he is "insufficiently Latino?"

So the PRLDEF and MALDEF and NCLR and the La Raza Lawyers and our $150K+perks/year Congressional Caucus "leaders" all ganged up on Miguel Estrada (the Caucus, supposedly by sheer coincidence, delivered their condemnatory letter to the Senate Committee the day before the hearing!)

Our only possible response to these unsavory actions is non-partisan in nature. We owe it to our community to inform all these folks that we know what they did. We then remind them that the memory of their behavior will be foremost in our minds the next time they ask for donations or, from some of us, our vote. And let us recall again this bad movie the next time one of these leaders calls for "unity" among us. As Latinos, we should be ashamed of the intellectual suicide-bombing that was displayed last week to the other communities in our great land; let us hope that these groups learn that family quarrels are ugly to everyone when they take place in the street!






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