Latino Groups Seek United Push for High Court Hopeful : Judiciary: Effort may include Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It is meant to advance the Supreme Court prospects of federal judge Cabranes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and several major Latino organizations have scheduled press conferences for today in an effort to coalesce behind the Supreme Court candidacy of U.S. District Judge Jose A. Cabranes of Connecticut --a move that could make him a clear favorite for the seat.

"We can't afford to come out of this thing all fragmented. That sends a negative signal," said Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) after a Hispanic Caucus meeting to discuss the high court vacancy. "There's a window of opportunity open to us now."

After a debate in which some members of the caucus voiced reservations about Cabranes, who is not well known to Latino political figures in the West and Southwest, the group agreed to put off a final decision until today. But sources familiar with the discussion said that Cabranes appears all but certain to win the group's endorsement.

"The members feel very good and comfortable with the decision. He's a distinguished jurist," said a congressional aide familiar with the caucus' deliberations.

A few of the 14 members present voiced concern that Cabranes might be too conservative, but overall "they feel that right now he's the best Latino candidate," the aide said. "They were opposed to other people bringing up other names at this stage. Everyone said we have to solidify behind one candidate right now."

Public endorsements of potential high court candidates by members of Congress or outside groups are not uncommon, though most of the time such moves have little significance. In this case, however, a united plea could carry weight. White House officials have indicated that President Clinton would be strongly inclined to name the first Latino Supreme Court justice but would like to find a candidate who would generate widespread support.

The prospects for such an appointment improved greatly Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) took himself out of contention for the high court job, saying that he wanted to concentrate on getting a national health care reform plan through Congress.

Mitchell plans to retire from the Senate at the end of this year. In a related development, congressional sources said that Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) plans to announce today that he will not seek to replace Mitchell as majority leader, setting up a likely two-person race between Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a Mitchell protege who already has announced that he plans to seek the job, and Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee, who is expected to do so.

In the jockeying for the court job, Cabranes has been hampered by a lack of support among some civil rights groups, a feeling that appears likely to continue despite the expected endorsements.

Civil rights activists argue that, after years of Republican nominees, the court is skewed heavily to the right and needs a true liberal to restore balance. Cabranes, they argue, does not meet that test.

As a district judge in a relatively placid state, Cabranes has not had the opportunity to rule on many high-profile cases. In the 15 years since President Jimmy Carter put Cabranes on the federal bench, for example, he has never had to rule on any cases involving abortion or the right to privacy, noted one lawyer who has reviewed his work.

The civil rights cases he has handled have mostly been "garden variety," he added. As a result, "there are limits on how much people know about him. There just have not been a lot of cases that give him an opportunity to show what his views and experiences are."

Cabranes "just doesn't excite anyone," said an official of another major civil rights group. The official also noted that many are suspicious of Cabranes because the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations considered him in their high court searches.

"This is not a positive development," the official said of the planned endorsements of Cabranes, conceding that the move would complicate efforts to get the White House to name a more clearly liberal candidate.

But supporters of Cabranes argued that, by searching for a candidate who pleases everyone, Latino groups might sabotage chances for a historic nomination.

"People need to be a little realistic and pragmatic about this," said one Latino adviser to the Administration. "They may have an ideal in mind which does not exist."

Not all Latino groups will join the Cabranes effort. Wednesday, for example, the Latino Issues Forum, a think tank based in San Francisco, sent a letter to the White House urging nomination of former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, whom Clinton already has nominated to be vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

But White House officials have indicated that Reynoso would not be a likely nominee, in part because of his age, 63, but also because of the 1987 election in which California voters, angered over court rulings against the death penalty, failed to retain him as a member of the state's high court.

Although many analysts at the time thought that Reynoso lost the election solely because he shared the ballot with controversial Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, Administration officials have been reluctant to reopen that controversy.

Indeed, Reynoso's example shows one reason for the support for Cabranes: a lack of clear alternatives. Relatively few Latinos have been appointed to the federal bench, from which recent presidents have drawn most high court nominees. And only recently have a growing number become involved in the sort of prominent activities in the bar and the legal community that lead people to appear on lists of Supreme Court prospects.

Civil rights advocates have urged Clinton to consider Los Angeles attorney Vilma Martinez, the former director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or the group's current director, Antonia Hernandez. But White House officials said that Clinton is more likely to turn to someone with judicial experience.

Times staff writers Alan C. Miller, Ronald J. Ostrow and Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.

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