Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 2003 /12 Elul 5763

Paul Greenberg

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If only Miguel Estrada had been just another mediocre tortician with a bigger mouth than brain | Congratulations to my two U.S. senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. And to Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy. And to the whole, solid block of Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

You must be very proud. All of you played a key role in blocking the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the federal judiciary. Month after month after month. For more than two years. Until finally he gave up and withdrew his name from consideration.

Clearly he would never do. A brilliant attorney, a hard-driving lawyer with the solicitor general's office, an upward-bound immigrant devoted to his adopted country ever since he got here from Honduras, Miguel Estrada had a crippling political disability. Two of them, actually. As if being a Republican weren't bad enough, he had to be Hispanic, too.

Miguel Estrada might have been spared if he'd been only one or the other -- a thoughtful conservative or a genuine compadre. But in tandem, those two qualities sank his nomination. The very thought of such a twofer shatters too many stereotypes, How demonize Republicans as stupid, xenophobic haters if they're nominating a bright, young immigrant for the appellate bench? Can't have that.

If only Miguel Estrada had been just another mediocre tortician with a bigger mouth than brain, he might have been acceptable. If only he hadn't done so well at Harvard (magna cum laude) and Columbia (Phi Beta Kappa) or in the solicitor general's office, if only he didn't believe so strongly in what he believes in, if only his name had been Mike Smith instead of Miguel Estrada . . . then he might have been quietly confirmed -- like any other inoffensive time-server.

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Then he wouldn't have represented a threat to anybody's entrenched prejudices about what a Republican should look like and think like. Then he wouldn't have challenged the Democratic Party's already slipping grip on Hispanic voters. Then there wouldn't have been any need for a two-year filibuster.

Both the nominee and the country now have been denied an opportunity for greatness by a willful minority, by the Lincolns and Pryors and Clintons and Kennedys and the whole partisan claque. It was a case of Democrats versus Quality, and Quality lost again.

Seven times the Republicans brought up his name, and seven times the Republicans fell short of the 60 votes required to close the debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of the nominee. The best the GOP could do was muster 55 votes, a clear majority but not enough to end a filibuster. The minority triumphed. It can now gloat and flex its muscles and dare the administration to nominate anybody else with a mind and heart.

At this rate, the perfect nominee for the federal bench will be a perfect cipher -- someone who's never stood out from the crowd and so never offended anyone. This the Democrats call "a consensus candidate," by which they mean a nobody.

The U.S. Senate, it turns out, is not an equal opportunity employer. The old masters of the filibuster who once used it to thwart civil rights legislation would have been proud; their dark tradition continues.

The president called the result "disgraceful," and the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, Tennessee's Bill Frist, said it was "a shameful moment" in the history of the Senate.

But the Democrats had their reasons. Once confirmed, Miguel Estrada might have been a constant reminder that the Republican Party is open to all, just like the American Dream. And if he had fulfilled his bright promise, he would have been a favored nominee for the Supreme Court someday, and who knew what quality he might bring to that motley crew of eight-plus-Scalia? This nomination had to be blocked.

The way is now open for some unobjectionable nonentity, someone whose legal sophistication won't be too conspicuous, someone who won't make the hacks feel uncomfortable.

The message from the Senate is unmistakable: Give us some mediocrity who's more interested in process than principle, someone who's never had an original thought in his life, someone who'd be right at home with the Blanche Lincolns and Mark Pryors of the Senate, and whose obvious promise won't embarrass the Hillary Clintons and Ted Kennedys.

Miguel Estrada just wanted to climb too high too fast; he had to be put in his place. And he was. Remember when America was called the Land of Opportunity? Tell it to Miguel Estrada.

If I were advising the White House (Heaven forbid! The prospect of actually exercising any power has always made me nervous) and if I had a taste for vengeance, which I do despite my best efforts to control it, here's what I'd suggest:

The administration needs to make sure its next nominee for the D.C. circuit court is a bit of a philosopher with a brilliant academic record and a Spanish surname. Just like the one the Democrats have just snubbed.

But how often do Santayanas and Cardozos come along? They stand almost alone. Miguel Estradas are not easy to come by; they are rare assets that attract attention -- and opposition. I think it was Jonathan Swift who said the sure sign of a man of genius is that the dunces immediately form a confederacy against him.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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