Leahy says Bush is withholding information on nominee

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(Host) Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is leading the Democrats’ fight against President Bush’s nominee to a key federal appeals court. Leahy is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says that the White House has refused to turn over documents on Miguel Estrada, the president’s choice for the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The federal appeals court for the District of Columbia is often viewed as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. And for days, the Senate has been bogged down in a debate over President Bush’s choice of 41-year-old lawyer Miguel Estrada to the important court.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy says the Democrats want to see Estrada’s memos from his work as a government lawyer that may shed light on his judicial philosophy:

(Leahy) “We know he’s a very bright lawyer. Is he somebody who should have a lifetime appointment to the second most important court in the country? And the White House determined they would send his name up, do a nice PR bit for him but then refused to allow anybody to see anything he’s ever written, have any idea what his positions are.”

(Dillon) The Democrats complain that Estrada is a stealth nominee who will shift the court to the right, especially on civil liberty issues. They say he was chosen in part because he has no written record to demonstrate his positions.

The Republicans counter that the Democrats are on a fishing expedition. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, says the Democrats are frustrated because they haven’t found anything damaging to use against Estrada.

The D.C. appeals court also has exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases involving many federal environmental laws, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Joan Mulhern is a lawyer with Earth Justice in Washington. She says that after the Supreme Court, the D.C. appeals court is the most important court for environmental protection.

(Mulhern) “The environment has emerged as a significant issue in the debate of judicial nominees, especially Mr. Estrada’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit. Senator Leahy, who’s the ranking Democrat on that committee, and many of his colleagues on that committee, have raised protection of the environment as one of the reasons to oppose Mr. Estrada’s nomination.”

(Dillon) Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate. But Democrats can block debate with just 41 votes. The Estrada nomination will be taken up again when the Senate returns from a two-week winter recess.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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