Horror Show

Ruben Guerrero's plans to be a judge again are dashed, as local Democrats continue their inept ways

The past year has been a horror movie for former state district judge Ruben Guerrero. Call it Revenge of the Rich White Males.

It stars conniving lawyers and congressmen, a busybody senator and a whole host of hurt feelings, accusations and calls to arms.

While it may be a horror movie to Guerrero, for the rest of Houston it's a farce, and just another example of how inept local Democrats have become in filling the precious few patronage jobs left to the party these days.

The saga concerns the seemingly endless attempt to replace U.S. District Judge Norman Black, who announced his retirement early last year. Guerrero had the job, then it appeared he didn't; then it appeared he did, and now he most definitely doesn't.

With no Democratic Senator -- or even a dominant Congressman like Jack Brooks -- the process for filling such a slot has become convoluted and chaotic. There are five Democratic representatives from the Southern District, one of four federal districts in Texas: Ken Bentsen, Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, and Solomon Ortiz and Ruben Hinojosa of South Texas. All are relatively new in their posts.

Their first attempt at filling Black's post was utterly lame: Unable to agree on a single name, they forwarded four names to President Clinton in March 1997, asking him to pick one. Informed that things don't work that way, they tried again, setting off the scramble that has degenerated into the current situation.

Green represents a district that was carved out specifically to produce a Hispanic representative; ever mindful of that, he has been single-minded in promoting Hispanics for federal slots. In the blunt math of the selection process, he has often teamed with the two South Texas representatives to get his way.

And that's what happened when the delegation announced, a week after the White House had rejected their first effort, that Guerrero was its choice. Now 51, he had been beaten in two attempts to get elected to a state district bench. Appointed to a criminal district judgeship by Ann Richards in 1993, he lost his bid to retain the seat a year later.

Guerrero never awed attorneys with his legal brilliance on the bench, but there have been worse judges. Guerrero's main problem was that he was picked for the federal job over Keith Ellison.

Legal resumes don't get much more impressive than Ellison's: summa cum laude at Harvard, editor of the law journal at Yale, a Rhodes scholar who won several academic prizes at Oxford and a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

Ellison, who's white, is also politically savvy. Not only does he do pro bono work for immigrant refugees, he represented the local Democratic congressional delegation in its 1996 redistricting lawsuit.

In other words, he appeared to be the perfect type of candidate to be a federal judge, from the viewpoint of bigtime lawyers for whom resumes are gospel. Those are the same kind of bigtime lawyers, of course, who contribute heavily to Democratic candidates on the local and national level and who have friends and former classmates scattered throughout the political bureaucracy.

Almost immediately after Guerrero's selection was announced, a behind-the-scenes campaign to sabotage the nomination began. Since Clinton became president, perhaps ten people had been named locally as nominees for anything from U.S. marshal to federal appeals court judge (some eventually withdrew), and none had been a white male. With the Democratic Party dead in statewide offices, the federal jobs represented the only way up for ambitious lawyers seeking appointments, and resentment was slowly building as minorities and women consistently were named.

To a dedicated group of secretive lawyers, the yawning gap between the resumes of Ellison and Guerrero, a graduate of Texas Southern University's law school, was too much to take. In a departure from standard practice, the White House conducted preliminary interviews with both Guerrero and Ellison, who had been named as the delegation's pick "if Guerrero is not nominated or confirmed."

Ellison says his White House interview last August was "pretty perfunctory. I was given to believe that Ruben Guerrero's nomination would proceed and I would be recommended for consideration for another position. It was clear to me that Ruben Guerrero was their first choice."

Not for long. Green, the judge's chief supporter, says he complained for months to the White House about its seeming determination to keep Ellison's hopes alive.

Rumors began circulating that Bentsen had traded his vote on the controversial "fast-track" trade agreement in return for a White House decision to support Ellison, a charge Bentsen's office vehemently rejects.

Later, Guerrero supporters accused Beaumont Congressman Nick Lampson of intervening on behalf of his friend Ellison. That earns a bemused reaction from Jonathan Brown, Lampson's spokesman.

"It's questionable how much influence [Lampson] would have as a freshman member of the minority party," he said. "Any degree of blame about this would be flattering to him, [as would] any implication that he has the power to make or break federal judges not in his district."

In reality, it's unlikely that Bentsen or Lee would bother antagonizing their congressional colleagues on Ellison's behalf. He's not tight enough with either to make it worth their while, and both are known for picking their battles cautiously.

Instead of the representatives, it was more likely the old-boy lawyer network that did Guerrero in. And Ellison's supporters had an unlikely ally -- U.S. Senator Phil Gramm.

Gramm has long had a committee of 30 or so lawyers who interview judicial nominees, both when the pick is his to make during Republican administrations and when his influence is supposed to be less noticeable, when a Democrat is in the White House.

Since Clinton took office, Gramm's committee has typically interviewed only the lead candidate named by the Democrats. In the case of Guerrero and Ellison, however, the committee invited both candidates.

Green and others have gotten conflicting stories on why: Committee members have told them the White House suggested both names; Green says White House officials have denied that to him.

In any case, both lawyers were interviewed three months ago, at the downtown Houston offices of Fulbright & Jaworski -- hardly a home-court advantage for Guerrero.

"It got kind of suspicious," says Guerrero. "There were only civil lawyers there, and Keith Ellison's wife is a partner at Fulbright. It just didn't smell quite right to me. I knew something was coming down the pike."

He was right -- the committee voted to endorse Ellison. "They told me," Green said, "that they thought Keith Ellison was more qualified. I said that was not the issue -- that they had to find that Ruben Guerrero was not qualified before they could consider Keith Ellison. But they said the White House had sent both names. The White House denies that, and denied it to me yesterday."

"What I suspect," Guerrero says, "is that someone on the Gramm committee called for the two names. They made an attempt early against me in the White House, and when that didn't work they used the Gramm committee to do the dirty work."

The "White House attempt" Guerrero describes failed in part because of Green's assiduous efforts in the judge's behalf.

The congressman sent a letter to the White House in July stating clearly that the judge was the first choice. Bentsen and Lee did not sign the letter, a circumstance that some Guerrero supporters find damning. Lee's office couldn't be contacted, but Bentsen spokesman Vince Willmore says his boss never saw the letter.

Green's lobbying worked, it seemed: Last October, the White House wrote him saying it indeed intended to nominate Guerrero. That was followed, however, by the Gramm committee interviews and increasing rumors that a faction in the White House was holding out for Ellison.

As the months dragged on and the writing on the wall became clearer, Green went public with his complaints. He held a press conference in March with Hispanic politicians such as State Senator Mario Gallegos, who announced plans to picket a planned presidential visit April 14.

Shortly afterward, the delegation formally voted to withdraw Guerrero's name and recommend Ellison. The experience has left both men unhappy.

"I figured (when I first applied) that the process would take six to eight weeks.... I'm astonished how long it took," said Ellison, who's been turning away clients because of the uncertainty about his future. "The scarcest commodity throughout all this has been reliable information. It's been very unfortunate, and I have nothing but sympathy for the other people in the process." He says Guerrero is "a class act" and there has been no animosity between the two.

Guerrero's feelings, naturally, are a little more bitter. "My shot at becoming a federal judge, which was a lifelong dream for me, is probably shot," he says. "I'd like to find out why and how, but I may never get to."

Contact Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@ houstonpress.com.

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