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Alito Tries to Defuse Doubts

Bush's nominee says he's not bound by ideology, but Democrats promise sharp questions for the man who could tip the high court's balance.

January 10, 2006|Maura Reynolds and David G. Savage | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush's choice for a closely divided Supreme Court, began his Senate confirmation hearings Monday by attempting to assure skeptical Democrats that he is not an ideological conservative with an expansive view of the powers of the presidency.

But Democrats pointedly put him on notice that he would be questioned aggressively about his views, particularly on the right to abortion and the president's claim to sweeping authority as commander in chief.

"There is nothing that is more important for our republic than the rule of law," Alito said in his opening statement. "No person in this country, no matter how high or powerful, is above the law, and no person in this country is beneath the law."

The scholarly appellate court judge appeared before the same Senate Judiciary Committee that four months ago recommended confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice, but it quickly became apparent that Alito's hearings would be far more contentious.

The sense of partisan confrontation has been heightened by the controversy over Bush's assertion of broad executive authority in the war on terrorism -- an interpretation of presidential power that Alito supported as a government lawyer.

"The challenge for Judge Alito in the course of these hearings is to demonstrate that he's going to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans and, in doing that, serve as an effective check on government overreaching," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said in the first of a series of stern statements directed toward the nominee by committee Democrats.

Alito's 15 years on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals have provided considerable fodder for his critics, and the fact that he would replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, frequently the high court's swing vote, has rallied liberal opposition.

"This is not just another nomination to the Supreme Court," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "This is the nomination that will tip the balance of the court one way or the other."

Lawmakers from both parties have said that Alito remains likely to be confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate, although by a far smaller margin than Roberts, as long as he makes no significant errors in the days of questioning, which begins this morning and is scheduled to continue through Wednesday. Roberts was confirmed 78 to 22.

Monday's session was devoted to opening statements, both from the nominee and from the senators who will question him. After the committee's 18 members had their say, Alito's plain-spoken comments offered a low-key ending to the first day of hearings.

His voice quavering slightly, Alito painted a picture of his life and approach to the law in personal terms. With his wife, two children and extended family seated behind him, he described growing up during the 1950s outside Trenton, N.J., in a "warm, but definitely an unpretentious, down-to-earth community."

After high school, Alito said, "I went a full 12 miles down the road, but really to a different world when I entered Princeton University."

It was a world not entirely to his liking, said Alito, 55, who is widely described as conservative politically. The late 1960s and early 1970s were "a time of turmoil at colleges and universities," he said, and "I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly.

"I couldn't help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community," he said. Alito graduated from Princeton in 1972 and Yale Law School in 1975.

During his confirmation hearings in September, Roberts used his opening statement to describe his legal philosophy, depicting himself as an umpire, not the star player of the game. The metaphor nicely captured his message that the Supreme Court should play a more modest role in American government. By contrast, Alito did not try to describe his legal views except to say that judges should have no agenda and should follow the rule of law.

"Good judges develop certain habits of mind," Alito said. "Good judges are always open to the possibility of changing their minds based on the next brief that they read, or the next argument that's made by an attorney who is appearing before them, or a comment that is made by a colleague during the conference" between judges.

He also signaled what is likely to be his defense of comments he made in memos while at the Justice Department in the 1980s, including one that the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide was "wrongly decided."

At the time, he told the committee, he was an attorney representing the United States.

"When I became a judge, I stopped being a practicing attorney," Alito said. "That was a big change in role. The role of a practicing attorney is to achieve a desirable result for the client in the particular case at hand. But a judge can't think that way. A judge can't have any agenda."

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