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Both Sides Warming Up for Alito Hearings

The American Bar Assn. gives the Supreme Court nominee its highest rating. Critics accuse the judge of applying legal rules inconsistently.

January 05, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Gearing up to do battle at congressional hearings next week, supporters and critics of Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. squared off over his federal court record Wednesday, with the American Bar Assn. rating him "well qualified" to sit on the nation's highest court and liberal interest groups denouncing him as "far out of the mainstream."

In particular, liberal critics accused him of applying legal principles inconsistently during his 15 years as a federal appellate court judge, using varying rationales to favor big business, presidential authority and causes supported by political conservatives.

"Judge Alito is in some respects to the right of Justice [Antonin] Scalia and is more like Justice [Clarence] Thomas," said Elliot Mincberg, general counsel for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, which released a report on Alito's record.

A separate analysis released Wednesday by the Alliance for Justice, another liberal group, estimated that in federal appeals cases where judges issued a split decision, Alito sided with the government 82% of the time and with individual plaintiffs 18% of the time. In those cases, the group said, the majority of the federal judges ruled more evenly -- with the government 54% of the time and with individual plaintiffs 46% of the time.

Seth Rosenthal, legal director for the Alliance for Justice, said the group's analysis said "something about how much Judge Alito defers to federal authority."

The American Bar Assn.'s decision to give Alito its highest rating was highlighted Wednesday by White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, who told reporters that "leading Senate Democrats have said in the past that the ABA rating is the 'gold standard' for evaluating judicial nominees."

The association's 15-member Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rates prospective federal judges, focusing on qualifications, integrity and judicial temperament. Alito had been rated "well qualified" in 1990 when he was nominated to the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the case of Supreme Court nominees, the panel undertakes a more extensive examination of a candidate's background.

Alito's "well qualified" rating for the high court -- defined by the ABA as "reserved for those found to merit the committee's strongest affirmative endorsement" -- was awarded unanimously, with one committee member not participating.

But Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, dismissed the rating, saying that it did not "consider ideology or philosophy."

"We believe a nominee to such a powerful and important position must demonstrate a commitment to upholding Americans' constitutional rights, freedoms and legal protections, and to preserving the legal and social justice progress of the past 70 years," Neas said. "Judge Alito's record unfortunately makes it clear that Americans cannot count on him to uphold their rights and freedoms -- and that he has in fact actively sought to weaken them."

Conservative and liberal groups plan an advertising push in advance of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, scheduled to begin Monday. In addition, a coalition of religious conservatives plans to hold a televised "Justice Sunday" rally in Philadelphia to promote Alito's nomination.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the rally's sponsors, said he believed Alito would be a vote on the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, although he said he had been given no assurances on that point from President Bush.

"I'm only taking the president's word that he would be appointing persons like Thomas and like Scalia who, I believe, would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade," Falwell told reporters on a conference call.

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