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The Senate’s much-anticipated hearing this week for judicial nominee Miguel Estrada is reviving sharp divisions in the Hispanic legal community over his nomination, blunting White House efforts to promote Estrada as a nominee popular among Hispanics. “Whenever a Hispanic nominee comes to bat, it becomes highly politicized and everyone goes bonkers,” says Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens. Lemus says her organization, known as LULAC, urged the Senate to give Estrada a hearing but as of press time had not taken a stand on his nomination — even though the Bush administration lists LULAC as a strong supporter of Estrada for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Several of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations have bogged down or failed because of ideology or Senate politics. But Estrada, set to go before the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, faces the additional hurdle of modern-day ethnic politics. Like U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas 11 years ago, Estrada presents himself as a conservative member of a minority group whose traditional advocacy groups and political positions tend toward the liberal end of the spectrum. To pass muster with some of these organizations, Estrada has undergone unusual scrutiny to determine how connected he is with his Hispanic roots and Hispanic policy concerns. The White House has portrayed Estrada’s background as a classic immigrant’s tale — someone who arrived in the United States as a teen-ager from Honduras unable to speak English, but who within a few years was excelling at Harvard Law School. “This administration appreciates the support of the Hispanic community which has described Estrada as ‘a role model,’ ‘brilliantly talented,’ ‘highly qualified’ and ‘a rising star,’” says Justice Department spokeswoman Monica Goodling. The administration also released statements from Hispanic leaders about Estrada, including one from Hispanic Business Roundtable President Mario Rodriguez highlighting Estrada’s “humble beginnings.” But the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) issued a sharply worded report last week disputing the administration’s tableau and urging the Senate to reject Estrada’s nomination. Estrada, according to PRLDEF, has a privileged background and a “clear lack of any connection whatsoever” to the lives and policy concerns of Hispanics, including affirmative action and the rights of criminal defendants. Meanwhile, the 20,000-member Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) — also listed by the administration as an Estrada backer — is deeply divided over the nominee. Under what one official described as intense lobbying by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and others, the association endorsed Estrada’s nomination last October, with then-President Rafael Santiago extolling Estrada’s “distinguished and impressive career.” But since then, 16 former HNBA presidents have signed a letter objecting to the way the endorsement came about and asking the association to reconsider it. The announcement of its endorsement of Estrada has been pulled from the bar association’s Web site. Current President Angel Gomez says the endorsement still stands, but that the association has not been asked to testify for Estrada, and Gomez declines to say if he agrees with the association’s endorsement. “I wish I had the liberty to give you my personal views,” says Gomez, a partner at Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw. “Can’t you read between the lines here?” The report from the Puerto Rican legal defense fund — issued by President Juan Figueroa — claimed Estrada does not have the experience and judicial temperament for the job, asserting that during his interview with the group last April, he was “surprisingly contentious, confrontational, aggressive and even offensive.” Estrada called some of the questions he was asked “boneheaded,” according to the report. The report also states that Estrada disputed the oft-repeated admonition among liberal Hispanic leaders that they would not accept a “Hispanic Clarence Thomas” on the Supreme Court. But more important in light of Estrada’s ethnic roots, PRLDEF said Estrada should also be rejected because of his lack of ties to the lives and concerns of fellow Hispanics. Countering the White House portrayal, the fund said that Estrada was the son of a lawyer and a bank vice president in Honduras, giving him a considerable leg up when he arrived in America at age 16. “Mr. Estrada has not lived the educationally or economically disadvantaged life his proponents would have others believe,” the PRLDEF report states. When Estrada achieved success as a lawyer, the report also claims, Estrada left his roots behind. “Once he made it, he both disappeared from and never became connected or committed to the Hispanic community,” PRLDEF asserts. “As a result, we believe that he lacks the sensitivity and perspectives shared by the majority of Hispanic-Americans in our country.” When asked about this subject during his interview, according to the report, Estrada told PRLDEF officials he listens to Hispanic music and reads Spanish-language books. Estrada, a D.C. partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, declined comment. Santiago, the pro-Estrada former HNBA president, laughs at the PRLDEF report and says that all it proves is that Estrada is “not a member of PRLDEF.” Santiago, partner in Hartford, Conn.’s Robinson & Cole, says Estrada has “shown commitments to his roots and to his country.” Santiago says the association made a full investigation of Estrada last year that followed its established procedures for reviewing judicial nominees. Asked about the protest by former HNBA presidents, Santiago says, “I can’t discuss internal matters, but this matter was thoroughly considered and revisited several times.” But one former HNBA president who declined to be named says the association’s endorsement of Estrada was “tainted” by partisan pressure from the White House that caused the leadership to ignore concerns about Estrada. Another former HNBA president, Gilbert Casellas, who chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Clinton administration, says the association’s leaders who endorsed Estrada “seemed to be a bit intoxicated by the White House effort to get their endorsement.” Still another former president fears the dispute over Estrada will weaken the organization’s credibility and cohesiveness for years to come. The Justice Department last week noted that 23 Hispanic organizations have endorsed Estrada, ranging from the Cuban American National Foundation to the Mexican American Grocers Association. But among many Hispanic advocacy organizations, the jury is still out, even as Estrada’s hearing approaches. Neither the National Council of La Raza nor the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund had made final decisions on whether to endorse Estrada as of press time. However, Marisa Demeo, MALDEF regional counsel, says the group expects to “express grave concern about his record to the committee.” Adds LULAC’s Lemus: “This Horatio Alger story — people want to know more. He’s clearly a smart man, but our membership is concerned.”

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