WASHINGTON - When Miguel Estrada, President Bush's nominee to a federal appeals court, saw Justice Antonin Scalia at a recent Supreme Court reception, they greeted each other warmly. Scalia said that perhaps Estrada should not be seen greeting him because it might be held against Estrada by the Senate Democrats who are blocking his nomination.
It was said in jest, but Republicans say the case against Estrada is composed of items like that.
Senate Democrats have asserted that Estrada is a "stealth candidate," someone chosen precisely because he is a strong and reliable legal conservative but without any record of speeches or writings that could be awkward to explain or justify at a confirmation hearing.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Estrada's spare record was part of a process in which he had "been groomed to be a judicial activist."
Republicans prefer to portray Estrada principally as an inspiring example of an immigrant reaping the rewards of America. Estrada came to the United States from Honduras when he was 17 and spoke little English.
He quickly learned. He graduated from Columbia College, became an editor of the Harvard Law Review, was a clerk for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and went on to argue 15 cases before the Supreme Court.
"Here's a kid who comes to our country, works hard, learns the language. He's a brilliant jurist," Bush told a gathering of Hispanic civic leaders at the White House in one of the many events held by the administration to promote Estrada's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "I want this man to serve as a bright example of what is possible in America."
But if Estrada seemed an ideal candidate for the administration, Republicans did not count on one feature of his personality that has made it easier for his opponents.
Estrada turned out to be a difficult, even prickly interview subject when he made courtesy calls on some Hispanic groups and when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His friends say he is principled and cannot avoid speaking straightforwardly, which means he is unwilling to provide benign, even courteous, responses when a line of questioning strikes him as foolish.
In a meeting with representatives of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Estrada apparently thought many of the questions were inappropriate or misguided. He did not, however, use those mildly critical words. Instead, he told the group's president that his comments were "boneheaded."
The Puerto Rican group had been inclined to oppose Estrada's nomination, but after the interview it did so with sharp denunciations of his maturity and character. "He was surprisingly contentious, confrontational, aggressive, even offensive in his exchanges with us," it said.
In a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, asked him what distinctive characteristics he would bring to the federal bench because of his Hispanic heritage. His reply, according to several accounts, was, "Offhand, none." The caucus, all Democrats, not only has opposed the nomination, but has done so with unusual vigor.
In his Judiciary Committee hearing in September, Estrada took what is often called "the judicial Fifth," declining to answer many questions by saying that he could not comment on issues that might come before him should he be confirmed. It is a common approach for judicial nominees, but Estrada was more reticent than most.
The fight over Estrada's nomination has nominally been over memorandums he wrote from 1992 to 1997 as a lawyer in the office of the solicitor general about pending Supreme Court cases. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is leading the fight against Estrada, said that because Estrada had such a scant written record, the memorandums on Supreme Court cases were needed to help evaluate his views.
But Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, has been resolute in refusing to release the memorandums.