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Archive for Thursday, April 17, 2003

Confirmation is good sign

April 17, 2003

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— Had it not been for a phone call from an old friend and fellow-jurist, I would have been as oblivious to the story of Judge Edward Prado of San Antonio as the rest of the Washington press corps.

Judge Tom Stagg of Shreveport, La., told me his pal was up for appointment to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and suggested I go by and "see how they treat him" at his confirmation hearing.

Turns out, it's like the Sherlock Holmes story of the dog that didn't bark. In the midst of the bitter partisan battle that has seen Democrats repeatedly block a Senate confirmation vote on the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Prado went through like gangbusters.

The story of why one Latino Republican has such an easy time while another creates such controversy is an instructive tale -- and one with hopeful implications.

Estrada has been denied an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor because Democrats call him "a stealth nominee," a man of high credentials but no judicial experience and one they say was unresponsive to their questions. Their demand to look at memos he wrote while serving in the Justice Department has been rejected by the administration, and neither side has yielded.

Given this background, I was expecting to see Prado, 55, put to the test at his Judiciary Committee hearing. His credentials are impressive: a graduate of the University of Texas and its law school, four years each as a prosecutor and a public defender, a short stint as a state judge, U.S. attorney for three years and since 1984, a federal district judge -- the last two appointments coming from President Reagan.

But Prado is also a character. His courtroom is wired with the latest audiovisual equipment, which Prado, a music lover and showman, loves to demonstrate. Three years ago, during a murder-for-hire trial, he came onto the bench while a recording of "Happy Together" by The Turtles filled the air, and then sang: "Imagine me as God. I do. I was appointed by the president. Appointed forever. My decisions cannot be questioned by you. I'm always right."

Many judges may feel that way; few say so and even fewer put it to music.

More seriously, in answering the committee's questionnaire, Prado noted controversial cases in which he ruled against a woman's claim of job discrimination by the San Antonio Fire Department, a diabetes patient's claim that he was unfairly found to be medically ineligible for a policeman's job, and a claim that the Texas high school graduation test discriminated against Hispanics.

In another part of the questionnaire, he listed 68 criminal, immigration and civil cases where he had been reversed or criticized by the court of appeals. Plenty of fertile ground, one imagined, for liberal groups to challenge elevating a Reagan judge to a closely balanced and important bench, just one level below the Supreme Court.

But in fact, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- which has vigorously opposed the Estrada nomination -- wrote a letter endorsing Prado. Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat and co-signer of the letter, told me that he had known Prado for almost 40 years and "he has everything you want in a judge -- he's smart and articulate, he's not arbitrary and he really understands people. Some of his rulings I would take issue with, but when the caucus interviewed him, he talked honestly about cases that have impacted minorities and he made it clear he knows how important the courts have been to us. It was so different from our hour's conversation with Estrada, who conveyed no sense of what we would think a Latino should appreciate about the historical role of courts in bringing us to where we are today and where we need to be tomorrow."

With the backing of the White House and the Hispanic Caucus, Prado's confirmation hearing was perfunctory. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat and scourge of Estrada, read a statement complaining of past Republican treatment of President Clinton's Latino nominees, then left without asking any questions. The two Republicans present -- Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- said they had known Prado for years and simply congratulated him.

Prado was then unanimously confirmed by the Judiciary Committee. When I asked Alberto Gonzalez, the White House counsel, if there might be a lesson in Prado's easy approval, he replied, "It's hard to say. We view Judge Prado as no more qualified than Miguel Estrada or others they (the Democrats) have opposed."

But the lesson seems obvious. Conservatives can be confirmed for the courts when they are well-known in their communities and a broad range of their constituents think them fair-minded. Even if they can't resist breaking into song.




David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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