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Rift over Estrada is a disgrace

During the legislative session that ended last week, members of the Utah Senate began to overstep their authority by asking nominees to the state Supreme Court how they would rule on certain cases. The questions were inappropriate. Judges cannot prejudge cases, otherwise the term "justice" would have no meaning.

But Utah lawmakers were being mild compared to Democrats in the U.S. Senate these days.

The hijacking of the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the federal appeals court in Washington is a disgrace and a mockery of the judicial confirmation process. It has dragged on for weeks now. Democrats have filibustered every time Estrada's confirmation has been raised, and they are not shy about their reasons. They think the 42-year-old Washington lawyer is too conservative, although they have no hard evidence on which to hang those assertions.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who now chairs the Judiciary Committee, has been boiling over because of this, calling it the tyranny of the minority.

Estrada has argued many cases before the Supreme Court, but he has left few trails that would give any clue as to his philosophical leanings. During his confirmation hearing — a daylong affair held back when the Democrats controlled the Judiciary Committee — he said he would follow binding court precedents and that his personal views would never interfere with his rulings. But he didn't reveal what those personal views might be. That would have been wrong. Judicial nominees virtually never reveal such things.

The Democrats believe President Bush has a plan to pack federal courts with conservative jurists. That may well be. Presidents often nominate judges they believe see the world as they do. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once campaigned on the desire to expand the Supreme Court so that he could pack it full of people who would find his New Deal programs to be constitutional.

There is nothing new in this. Nor is there anything new about politicians trying to scuttle the other party's nominees. Hatch himself used to drag his feet when President Clinton nominated people.

But the only legitimate concern the Senate should have is over whether a nominee is fit and competent enough to serve.

At the moment, the Senate is so closely divided that Republicans can't muster enough votes to end a filibuster. If this issue is to be decided, it will be because statesmen begin showing deference to principles higher than petty partisanship.

Apparently, judging by what we see both here and in Washington, that's a tall order.