Analysis

Nominee's Reasoning Points to a Likely Vote Against Roe v. Wade

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By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

As far as anyone yet knows, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. has not made any public declaration calling for the overruling of Roe v. Wade , the 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion.

At least on the surface, Alito's record as an appeals court judge contains something for everyone. In 1991, he voted to uphold a Pennsylvania law that would have required married women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion. In 1995, however, he cast a deciding vote on a three-judge panel to strike down what abortion rights advocates saw as Pennsylvania's onerous regulations on federally funded abortions for victims of incest or rape. And in 2000, he concurred in a ruling that struck down a New Jersey ban on the late-term procedure called partial-birth abortion by opponents.

Yet for supporters and skeptics, Alito's record is not ambiguous, and it points toward the same conclusion: He would probably vote to strike down Roe . And they say this for a similar reason: It's not the results Alito reached in past cases that matters, it's his legal reasoning.

Alito's dissenting opinion in the 1991 case, which was later rejected by a 5 to 4 vote of the Supreme Court, shows "there was a little bit of interpretation, and more room for him to apply his own perspective to it," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which backs abortion rights. As a result, she said, his true anti- Roe colors came through.

As for Alito's vote to strike down Pennsylvania's rules on abortions funded by Medicaid, conservatives dismiss that as a ruling that turned on the finer points of administrative law. "It can't be characterized as an abortion ruling on the merits," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, which opposes Roe .

The abortion debate is at the heart of the incendiary politics surrounding Supreme Court nominations -- and those politics are heated largely because of Roe itself, which brought the court into an area that had previously been the province of state legislatures.

Strictly speaking, the Roe debate is not about whether abortion should be legal or illegal. The Roe decision struck down all state prohibitions on abortion, so overturning it would simply make it possible for states to ban abortion again -- but not mandatory that they do so.

In addition, replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who supports Roe , with an anti- Roe justice would not create a majority on the court for overturning Roe . Rather, the vote count would still be at least 5 to 4 in favor of the basic abortion right recognized in the decision because Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer support it.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has yet to put his view on the record, though his otherwise conservative background suggests he would vote to overturn Roe .

In ruling on abortion-related issues that have come before him as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, Alito was bound to follow Supreme Court precedent.

For that reason, abortion rights advocates tend to discount his ostensibly pro-abortion-rights rulings, saying that they reflect the fact that he was tightly constrained by higher legal authority.

In the 1995 case, Blackwell v. Knoll , the issue before a panel of three judges was how far Pennsylvania could go in regulating abortions paid for by Medicaid.


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