The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday edged toward its first showdown over judicial nominees since Republicans took over the Senate this month, as Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) scheduled a vote next week on Miguel Estrada for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.

Hatch, foreshadowing another bitter fight, also said he planned to bring up the renomination of U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit within the next couple of months. When Democrats controlled the committee last year, they rejected him after questioning his record on civil rights and other issues.

Hatch promised expeditious consideration of Priscilla R. Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice, who was renominated to the 5th Circuit bench after Democrats rejected her because of her views on abortion and other matters.

Pickering was particularly controversial and became even more so after Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), his chief congressional backer, was forced to step down as Republican leader because of racially charged remarks he made last month. Hatch indicated Pickering would probably face another hearing -- his third -- before the committee votes on his nomination.

Three other circuit court nominees who have raised questions from Democrats and liberal groups are also scheduled for a hearing Wednesday.

Estrada drew most of the Democratic fire yesterday as the committee met to schedule his nomination for a vote Thursday. Estrada, who has been mentioned as a possible choice to become the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, would tilt the evenly divided D.C. circuit court toward the right.

At yesterday's meeting, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the committee, submitted a statement saying that, after a hearing on Estrada's nomination last year, Leahy was "left with more questions than answers after all of the steps Mr. Estrada took to avoid answering questions." He said Estrada's nomination has "generated tremendous controversy -- in part because he appears to have been groomed to be an activist appellate judge by well-placed conservatives."

Miguel Estrada has been nominated for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.