Sen. Nelson's statement on Miguel Estrada
February 25, 2003
Mr. President, the courts provide the foundation upon which the institutions of government in our free society are built. Their strength and legitimacy are derived from a long tradition of federal judges whose knowledge, integrity and impartiality are beyond reproach. The Senate is obligated by the Constitution -- and the public interest - to protect this legacy and to ensure that the public’s confidence in the court system is justified and continues for many years to come. As guardians of this trust we must carefully scrutinize the credentials and qualifications of every man and woman nominated by the President to serve on the federal bench. The men and women we approve for these lifetime appointments make important decisions each and every day, which impact the American people. Once on the bench they may be called upon to consider the extent of our right to personal privacy, our right to free speech, or even a criminal defendant's right to counsel. The importance of these positions and their influence must not be dismissed. We all have benefited from listening to the debate about Miguel Estrada's qualifications to serve on the D.C. Circuit. And I very much respect those Senators who desire to have additional information about Mr. Estrada's personal beliefs. Their efforts reflect a sound commitment to the Senate’s constitutional obligation to advise and consent. At the same time, I am troubled by those who have suggested that some Senators are anti-Hispanic because they seek additional information about this nominee. Poisoning the debate with baseless, accusations demeans the nomination process. After reviewing Mr. Estrada's personal and professional credentials -- including personally interviewing the nominee -- I believe he is qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court - and, I will vote in favor of his nomination. A federal appellate judge's power to decide and pronounce judgment and carry it into effect is immense and comes with a moral and legal obligation to conform to the highest standards of conduct. Federal judges must possess a high degree of knowledge of established legal principles and procedures and must also be impartial, even tempered and have a well-defined sense of justice, compassion and fair play. In addition, a judge must have the integrity to leave legislating to lawmakers. Judges must have the self-restraint to avoid injecting their own personal views or ideas that may be inconsistent with existing decisional or statutory law. I believe Mr. Estrada possesses the knowledge and skills needed to be a successful court of appeals judge. Few would argue with his academic credentials, litigation experience or intelligence. And based on my conversation with him, and those who know him well, I believe he respects -- and will honor -- his moral and legal obligation to uphold the law impartially. However, should Mr. Estrada someday be considered for a position on the Supreme Court - as some have suggested he could be - I believe further inquiry not only will be justified, but necessary. While appellate judges are constrained to a great degree by precedent, and by a check on their power by the Supreme Court, justices on the High Court have greater latitude to insert their own ideological viewpoints. Mr. Estrada agreed wholeheartedly with this point when we discussed his nomination. Make no mistake; I believe all judicial nominees should be completely forthcoming during the confirmation process. Mr. Estrada has argued that he's satisfied a minimum threshold of disclosure, and that revealing additional information about his personal ideological beliefs may compromise his image of impartiality - if he eventually is seated on the federal bench. I disagree with his approach, because it leads to the suspicion and mistrust - like that which now engulfs us. Furthermore, I do not believe a similar argument reasonably can be made by a nominee to the Supreme Court. Ideology can be central to the High Court's decisions. As a result, absolute disclosure by Supreme Court nominees is necessary to protect the public interest. In sum, while I believe Mr. Estrada could have been more forthcoming in order to avoid this controversy, my conclusion is that he is qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit. Should he come before the Senate as a nominee to the Supreme Court, he must be willing to provide additional information about his personal beliefs. I yield the floor.