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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 22:09 GMT
Senate row over judge
President Bush with nominees
Mr Bush has nominated a diverse group of judges

A battle has broken out in the US Congress over President George Bush's nomination of a federal judge.

US Supreme Court
The appeals circuit is the highest level below the Supreme Court
Democratic Senators say they will block the nomination, and stop all other debate, unless the prospective judge - Miguel Estrada - spells his position on key issues facing the courts, including abortion.

Republicans say the Democrats' objection is a partisan move that could threaten a constitutional crisis.

At stake could be the future make-up of the US Supreme Court, which many anti-abortion activists hope will reverse its 30-year support for abortion.

If you don't have an opinion, then move out of the way

Senator Hillary Clinton
President Bush is believed to want to appoint an Hispanic person to the Supreme Court. If approved, Mr Estrada would be a leading candidate for the Supreme Court, since the appeals circuit is the highest level below that.

Conservative views

Normally, appeal court judges are approved without votes, and the move by the Senate Democrats to "filibuster" or talk out the nomination is unprecedented.

It would take 60 votes to overturn a filibuster, more than the narrow Republican majority.

"Fairness demands that he receive an up or down vote on the Senate floor," President Bush said in a statement.

Democrats were angered when Mr Estrada refused to answer any questions about his views on Supreme Court cases at his confirmation hearings.

The administration also refused to release internal documents outlining Mr Estrada's views.

"I don't think that's a person that belongs on the appellate bench," said Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton.

"If you don't have an opinion, then move out of the way."

But House Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch said Mr Estrada did not answer the questions because he knew they would be used against him.

As a federal appeals court judge, Mr Estrada would be likely to have to rule on some of the most divisive issues in American political life: affirmative action, abortion, environmental regulation and school vouchers.

Miguel Estrada, who works at a Washington law firm, came to the US from Honduras as a teenager and went on to graduate near the top of his class at Harvard.

Recruitment drive

The fight has broader political implications, as Republicans have begun an advertising campaign trying to demonstrate that they are a party that believes in opportunity for all.

They are particularly targeting the Hispanic community, who have just overtaken African-Americans as the largest ethnic group in the USA.

The Democrats face a difficult dilemma.

Their core supporters, including those who support the right to abortion, have been urging them to fight hard to ensure that control of the Supreme Court does not pass into conservative hands.

But if they hold up the business of the whole Senate too long, they could be accused of blocking important actions on terrorism and reviving the economy, and suffer with the electorate in the 2004 elections.

See also:

24 Jan 01 | Americas
19 Jan 01 | Americas
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29 Jan 03 | Americas
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