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Another Clarence Thomas?

Washington | Liberals are fighting hard to keep a conservative Latino off the D.C. circuit court, and possibly the Supreme Court

Issue: "Osama's witnesses," May 18, 2002

He came to America from Honduras at the age of 17 with his divorced mother and without much knowledge of English. But within a few years he had graduated with honors from Columbia College-New York and Harvard Law School. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and served five years in the solicitor general's office, helping argue the government's cases before the Supreme Court.

This story of hard work is one reason Senate Republicans look forward to a long-delayed hearing for Miguel Estrada, the first Latino nominee to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It may also be the same reason Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats are keeping his nomination buried.

Mr. Estrada is one of eight Bush nominees to the circuit courts who have watched a year elapse without even a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee. In all, only nine of the 30 Bush circuit-court picks have been confirmed. Committee chairman Patrick Leahy-who during campaign 2000 said that judicial nominees should receive a vote within 60 days of their nomination-has only vaguely promised that Mr. Estrada will receive a hearing sometime this year, but committee aides expect it this summer.

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With the Supreme Court taking fewer cases each year, liberal groups have moved the battle over judicial nominees to the appeals courts, which are more often the last word on major issues. Both conservatives and liberals regard Mr. Estrada as a nominee with a bigger, brighter future: possibly a Supreme Court nominee.

Ralph Neas of the liberal group People for the American Way calls him "the Latino Clarence Thomas and a darling of the right wing." Sen. Orrin Hatch, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is equally blunt: "Mr. Estrada is likely to be the first Hispanic American to sit on the Supreme Court. That's the thing they are holding against him."

The parallels between Justice Thomas and Mr. Estrada are apparent. Both are minorities appointed by Republicans. Both came from modest backgrounds with family struggles. Both have been nominated to the D.C. circuit court, which is often seen as a stepping stone to the highest court and is regarded as the second most powerful court in the land. Both were nominated around age 40 without much of a paper trail for opponents to evaluate. But while Thomas opponents within the liberal American Bar Association fought to give him the mid-level rating of "qualified" in 1989, Mr. Estrada has drawn the ABA's highest rating of "well-qualified."

White House talking points stress that Mr. Estrada has far more courtroom experience than the average circuit-court nominee. He's argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court, on both civil and criminal matters, and won 11. He tried 10 cases as a prosecutor and argued seven cases before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York.

Despite his law-and-order reputation, Mr. Estrada represented Virginia death-row inmate Tommy David Strickler pro bono before the Supreme Court in 1999 when it was proven that prosecutors in his case failed to tell the defense that an eyewitness had initially been uncertain if she could identify Strickler. The court ruled 7-2 that while the prosecutors erred, he should not be spared the death penalty. Upon his loss, Mr. Estrada said the ruling underlines "fears about what the government can do to you ... in effect, make up the evidence."

Still, Estrada critics fear his entirely mainstream conservatism. He's a member of the conservative Federalist Society, he worked with Ken Starr in the solicitor general's office, and he worked in private practice with current Solicitor General Ted Olson. He travels in Washington's conservative social circles, serving as a groomsman a year ago in the wedding of lawyer George Conway, an active behind-the-scenes Clinton opponent, and GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick.

Legal experts say Mr. Estrada has distinguished himself as a sharp analyst of criminal law. He has served on the board of directors of the New York?based Center for the Community Interest, a group of moderates and conservatives that favors the "broken windows" approach to law enforcement, which holds that simply cleaning up neighborhoods and enforcing minor laws creates an environment that reduces overall crime.

In 1997, Mr. Estrada wrote an amicus brief (and made a rare media appearance on National Public Radio) defending a Chicago ordinance that made it unlawful for street-gang members to loiter in public spaces. Last year, he represented the city of Annapolis, Md., for free in a similar case. Both laws were struck down.

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