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Estrada nomination moves to full Senate

Senate Judiciary Committee approves on party-line vote

From Brad Wright
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On a 10-9 party-line vote Thursday, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Estrada is considered a possible choice for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in the event of a vacancy during the Bush administration. The D.C. circuit court is considered a steppingstone to the Supreme Court, having produced Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

If confirmed, Estrada would be the first Hispanic to sit on the D.C. court.

The vote was taken in the first meeting of the committee since Republicans reassumed control of the U.S. Senate after the November elections. Partisan wrangling over judicial nominations has bogged down the process for years.

Estrada's nomination now moves to the full Senate for consideration where another more public partisan battle is likely. But the fight over the Estrada nomination left both sides bristling.

Democrats, bolstered by numerous Hispanic and other minority groups who oppose Estrada's nomination, repeated earlier statements that they were concerned Estrada was not forthcoming about how he views the law.

"No matter how many times I tried, no matter how many opportunities he was given, Mr. Estrada insisted that he could not state a view on a single Supreme Court case," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, who chaired Estrada's confirmation hearing last year.

"By remaining silent, Mr. Estrada only buttressed the fear that he's a far right stealth nominee, a sphinx-like candidate who will drive the nation's second most important court out of the mainstream."

Hatch dismisses criticism

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, downplayed the notion that Estrada's views on the law are unknown.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, with the committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, with the committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"That's frankly, silly," Hatch said in his opening remarks. "The fact is we know as much about him as we know about any nominee. The interest groups are simply upset that they haven't found anything bad to defeat him with."

With the exception of Hatch and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, Republicans were largely silent in their support of Estrada. Every Democrat in attendance spoke out to reject the nominee.

Though much of the Thursday's debate centered on Estrada's qualifications for the appellate bench, the politics of abortion lurk just below the surface.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California said, "Judiciary becomes very important and Roe vs. Wade becomes a very important Supreme Court case. Even at that, he could not assess whether he felt the case was correctly decided or not ... I can't help but wonder why someone like Miguel Estrada wasn't asked to serve on a district court first, so that one might get a sense of his views."

It is not known when the full Senate will take up the nomination.

Estrada, 41, came to the United States from Honduras as a teenager. He graduated at the top of his class from Columbia College and Harvard Law School before clerking for Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy at the U.S. Supreme Court.

He also served as assistant to the Solicitor General during the Clinton administration. Estrada is a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in Washington, the firm that represented Bush in his Supreme Court fight for the presidency.

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