Outside view: Groundhog day redux

By HORACE COOPER, A UPI Outside view commentary  |  Feb. 14, 2003 at 5:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Imagine this scenario: Following a victory in the presidential race by the narrowest of margins over the sitting vice president, the new president boldly attempts to expand his party's political base by appointing a distinguished minority to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Almost immediately some members of the Senate, acting at the direction of the narrow-minded extremists who dominated the Democrats' Senate caucus, plotted to thwart the nomination. Though they oppose his views on equal opportunity and equality before the law, they cloak their concerns about this nominee in politically more acceptable terms as being related to his experience and legal ability.

These senators embark on an almost yearlong effort to prevent his confirmation, refusing for eight months to even hold a hearing.

After failing to kill the nomination in committee, they desperately resort to a rumor and innuendo campaign to defeat him on the floor of the Senate and finally they turn to the filibuster as a last ditch effort to stop him.

The president ultimately recess-appoints his nominee to the bench in order to force the Senate to give him an up-or-down vote.

The aforementioned scenario is not theoretical; it actually happened to future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall when President John F. Kennedy first named him to the federal bench.

Many political analysts see this dramatic incident now 40 years in the past as a major turning point in American politics. Black Americans, seeing how strongly Kennedy stood up for Marshall's nomination against the opposition of certain senators, rewarded Kennedy's party at the ballot box, voting in increasing numbers for the Democrats in future elections.

This shift in support came at the expense of the Republicans, who had historically -- as the party of Abraham Lincoln -- been strongly supported by blacks in most regions of the country.

Senate Democrats -- including some of their most prominent and best known, with names like Kennedy and Daschle -- are once again trying to torpedo the nomination of a minority candidate to the federal bench.

This time the nominee is Miguel Estrada, a native Honduran. The minority groups who are growing increasingly angry at the way some senators are opposing the nomination are Hispanic.

As in the movie "Groundhog Day," the Senate Democrats seem doomed to repeat their past mistake without learning from it.

Estrada spent 19 months in limbo while the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee refused to move ahead on his nomination. It was finally reported out last week after a 10-9 party-line vote after the November elections put the Republicans in charge of the committee.

The Democrats are filibustering the nomination as a last ditch effort to keep this 41-year-old Honduran immigrant from taking a seat on the federal bench.

This effort is, sadly, as baseless as it was when Marshall was the target. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., are spearheading the effort to paint the highly qualified Estrada as inexperienced and a potential "right-wing judicial activist" in waiting.

Born and raised in Honduras, Estrada came to the United States as a teenager not knowing English. In a matter of years, he graduated cum laude from Columbia and magna cum laude from the Harvard School of Law.

In 1990 he went to work as an assistant U.S. Attorney and by 1992, Estrada had joined Ken Starr in the Office of the U.S. Solicitor General. Whatever views he evinced, former Attorney General Janet Reno thought they were not barriers for retaining him and he stayed until leaving for the private sector in 1997.

Leahy, the new ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee says Estrada "declined to name one Supreme Court ruling with which he disagreed."

Apparently, Leahy now views judicial nominees, who profess nearly categorical agreement with settled case law, to be brazen activists ready to remake the Constitution.

That claim just won't wash. The American Bar Association gave Estrada its highest endorsement -- a unanimous 'well-qualified.' Of far greater consequence perhaps is that the Democrat's filibuster can only benefit the Republicans.

Senate opposition to Estrada has already alienated Hispanics. Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, urges the Senate Democrats not to fight this nomination. "I think it will hurt them. There is going to be that swing vote in the Hispanic community wondering what is going on."

When LULAC goes on the record to publicly complain about the unfair treatment given Estrada, you can see where things are going -- especially when they see that the people who are fighting hardest to win his confirmation are Republican President George W. Bush and Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Some Democrat insiders acknowledge the DNC is hearing complaints from Hispanic groups about Estrada's mistreatment while 17 of the largest Hispanic organizations have publicly called on the Democrats to stop the filibuster.

This is exactly the wrong news for the Democrats.

According to a recently released Johns Hopkins report entitled "Hispanic Priority," support from Hispanics will be a key ingredient to Democrats retaking the White House in 2004. With its big victory in November 2002 however, the Republicans proved that they're playing for keeps. While making meager progress among black voters, the GOP got four times as many votes from Hispanics, now the largest minority group in America.

In a closely divided electorate, Democrats can ill-afford to alienate this sizeable voter bloc.

Miguel Estrada's nomination signals the end of an era: Hispanics are no longer a small largely powerless voter bloc. Instead they are a powerful and assertive political force. Bush's nomination of Estrada heralds a major demographic shift that presages major political turmoil for Democrats. Is it possible that Senate Democrats might recognize this before its too late?

(Horace Cooper is a senior fellow with the Center for New Black Leadership. "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers on issues of public interest.)

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