Judge Emilio Garza, a steadfast opponent of abortion and forceful advocate for judicial restraint, has been on the Republican short list for a Supreme Court spot for over a decade. By judicial standards, his ascent has been supersonic. Garza was first appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 after serving as a state judge in Texas for only one year. President George H.W. Bush named him to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, and within a year the White House was considering him for the Supreme Court slot now held by Clarence Thomas.
With views more steadfastly conservative than Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's, Garza could fill President Bush's desire to appoint the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice while also satisfying his conservative supporters.
"I think Garza is probably likely to be a generally restrained judge," said Lino Graglia, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. "He's not bursting with ambition to change the world." Some court observers say Garza would be closest to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, among the sitting judges, in his judicial philosophy.
A native of San Antonio, the 57-year-old Garza received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Notre Dame before serving in the Marine Corps from 1970 to 1973. He graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1976 and joined Clemens & Spencer, a small San Antonio law firm, where he spent 11 years.
"He was a very effective trial lawyer. He was sincerely interested in his clients and in seeing that their interests were protected," said George Spencer Jr., a partner in the firm who worked with Garza. Garza specialized in defending hospitals and doctors in medical malpractice cases. When he left the firm to become a judge, some in the firm were a bit surprised. "From my perspective as an associate, I thought he was totally content," said Phyllis Speedlin, now a judge on a Texas appellate court in San Antonio.
In 1991, when he was first mentioned as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court, Garza had been on the bench only three years and had written only a few opinions. Like Justice David Souter, Garza would have been somewhat of a "stealth" choice, with a limited judicial record for the Senate to mine for views on hot-button issues like abortion. Now, that has changed.
In two cases during the 1990s, Garza voiced his opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision and questioned its constitutionality. In both cases, Garza said he was forced by judicial precedent that he called "inimical to the Constitution" to join his colleagues in siding against state laws that would have sharply narrowed the right to an abortion. In 1997, Garza concurred with colleagues in striking down certain provisions in a Louisiana law that required parental notification when a minor sought an abortion, although he wrote that the Supreme Court's rulings in Roe and subsequent cases "have always stood on precarious constitutional footing." In that ruling, Garza wrote that "it is unclear to me that the court itself still believes that abortion is a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment."
Friends and colleagues say that off the bench, Garza leads a quiet life and avoids any appearance of ethical conflict. "When he became a federal judge, he took that role very, very seriously," said Speedlin. "He does limit his social contact with lawyers and old friends." Garza has never married, and he has been a lifelong member of the Roman Catholic Church. "He has an absolutely good reputation in our community for being conservative, being diligent, working hard," Speedlin said. "It doesn't surprise people that he is on the list of potential Supreme Court nominees."