Salazar could be considered in push to name Hispanic Supreme Court justice

While Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar’s prospects for a cabinet position dim — he says he’s not interested — Hispanic legal advocates says it’s time the U.S. Supreme Court included a Hispanic justice, and the Democratic congressman’s name makes the short list. “What more unifying appointment could there be than a Hispanic justice?” former Hispanic National Bar Association President Carlos Ortiz asks the Legal Times’ Tony Mauro. “It’s not just the right thing to do, but we deserve it. I can’t imagine that the next appointment will go to someone other than a Hispanic.”

Encouraged by President-elect Barack Obama’s talk of inclusiveness, and emboldened by the importance of the Hispanic vote to Obama’s victory — two-thirds of Hispanics voted for him — Hispanic groups are cautiously hopeful that finally the time has come for a justice with a Latino background.

Almost every list of possible Obama nominees to the high court includes Hispanics — most notably Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. But others who are mentioned include: Judge Kim Wardlaw of the 9th Circuit (her mother was Mexican), U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo of Chicago, California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, and even two Democratic U.S. senators — Ken Salazar of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Ortiz began lobbying for a Hispanic justice during the Clinton administration and pushed hard when President George W. Bush found vacancies on the high court. Meeting with then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Ortiz said he was encouraged Hispanic candidates were high on the list but later blasted Gonzales’ “lip service” when other considerations took over.

After Obama’s election, “there is an enormous sense of urgency,” current HNBA President Ramona Romero told Mauro. She said she is putting together a group of Hispanic legal scholars, including Ortiz, to assemble a list of potential nominees and vet them ahead of time so “we will be ready.”

On Nov. 14, Romero wrote a letter to Obama urging him to “make history yet again” by nominating a Hispanic justice, thereby erasing the “unfortunate message” conveyed by a Supreme Court with no Hispanic members. “The presence of a Latino or Latina at the conference table could add a needed ‘special voice’ to the Supreme Court’s deliberations and decisions — a voice that can speak about the law as it affects U.S. Hispanics with the authority that only firsthand knowledge can provide.”

Speculation about an Obama appointment swirled around Salazar soon after the election because of his early and enthusiastic support and the fact Obama carried Colorado’s nine electoral votes with the help of overwhelming support from the state’s Hispanic voters. Salazar’s history heading Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and tenure as the state’s elected attorney general fueled talk the Democrat could land in an Obama cabinet as secretary of the interior, but the rumor mill has moved on to other possibilities.

The Pueblo Chieftain’s Peter Roper wrote on Monday:

Salazar has not said he wants to join the Obama cabinet but was put on the list of possible nominees almost by default, given his high-profile battles with the Bush administration over oil shale development in the West, public lands and water. This week, national newspapers are ranking Reps. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., as prominent contenders to head Interior, with Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and popular Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer as possible nominees. Schweitzer got national press attention at the Democratic National Convention last August with an energetic and funny speech that showcased the new strength of Democrats in the West.

Salazar said he’s told Obama’s transition team he wants a Westerner leading the Department of Interior, but he also brushed off speculation about his own interests in Interior. That’s still the situation, Salazar’s spokesman told Roper on Monday.

It looks like Salazar plans to stay in the Senate, for a while at least, with a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser scheduled for Friday in Denver, according to the Denver Post’s Jessica Fender. “Colorado is a competitive state,” campaign spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley told Fender, “and Sen. Salazar expects to have a tough opponent in 2010.”

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Ernest Luning

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