By Charles Babington and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 5, 2006
Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. will face a more intensive Senate grilling next week than Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. experienced last year because of concerns over secret surveillance of Americans and Alito's lengthy record of conservative rulings, several lawmakers and interest groups said yesterday.
Alito would replace retiring centrist Sandra Day O'Connor, the decisive justice on numerous 5 to 4 rulings, further raising the stakes for the Judiciary Committee hearings, which will begin Monday. By contrast, Roberts had a shorter paper trail -- three years as an appellate judge, compared with Alito's 15 -- and he succeeded a fellow conservative, the late William H. Rehnquist, thereby having modest impact on the court's balance.
Democratic senators vowed to press Alito aggressively, and two major liberal groups issued thick reports yesterday assailing his record and urging his rejection. But his supporters dismissed the reports and continued to predict that the Republican-controlled Senate will confirm him. The American Bar Association, meanwhile, rated him "well qualified."
Even before it was revealed last month that President Bush authorized the National Security Agency in 2001 to spy on Americans without obtaining warrants, Alito seemed assured of a more contentious hearing than Roberts underwent. Democrats pointed to two memos Alito wrote in 1985 outlining his right-leaning philosophies, plus numerous dissents he wrote as an appellate judge.
Several of Alito's writings argued for a powerful executive branch, and the news about the domestic NSA surveillance program is providing grist for questions at the hearing, senators said.
"Alito has shown a strong predilection to concentrate power in the executive branch," the liberal group People for the American Way wrote in a 155-page report. The record is especially troubling, the report said, when "allegations of abuse abound, from warrantless wiretapping of American citizens to the unlawful detention and torture" of terrorism suspects.
The liberal Alliance for Justice issued a 168-page report criticizing Alito. Nan Aron, the group's president, said Alito "has the ideas and vision to move American legal thought in a radical new direction, jeopardizing our most cherished individual rights and freedoms."
Half of the Senate's 44 Democrats (and all 55 Republicans) voted to confirm Roberts, whose handling of committee questions won widespread praise in both parties. Democratic leaders say more of their colleagues will oppose Alito, but privately they say it will be difficult to block his confirmation.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said in an interview yesterday that senators will grill Alito about proper limits on a president's powers to order domestic surveillance in light of the NSA revelation. The GOP-controlled Congress may not conduct vigorous oversight in the matter, Leahy said, and "it probably will end up with the courts being the only ones able to," so a Supreme Court justice's views are crucial.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), another committee Democrat, said: "At the outset there is more skepticism about Judge Alito than Judge Roberts because there are more things in Alito's record that seem to be extreme." Democrats will reserve judgment until the hearing, he said.
The American Bar Association, the nation's largest organization of lawyers, gave Alito its highest ranking, which Roberts also received. Stephen L. Tober, a New Hampshire lawyer who chairs the group's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, said the association, following custom, assessed Alito on his integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament -- not on his views. One of the committee's 15 members declined to vote on the Alito question. Tober declined to identify the person or explain the reason.
Conservative groups this week are sending surrogates to tout Alito's credentials in several states. They also are airing television ads in targeted states portraying Alito as a distinguished jurist whose views are within the nation's legal mainstream.
Meanwhile, the liberal group MoveOn.org said it plans to begin airing television ads Monday portraying Alito as an extremist trying to pass himself off as a moderate. IndependentCourt.org announced plans for an ad campaign to air on black-oriented radio stations in Arkansas and Louisiana attacking Alito's civil rights record.
At the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, a conference of professors and deans from the nation's six historically black law schools concluded yesterday that Alito would pose a potential threat to several civil rights advances. As an appellate judge and previously as a Reagan administration lawyer, he has taken positions on issues -- including voting rights, employment discrimination and affirmative action -- that are hostile to civil rights, the educators said.
The prospect of Alito joining a court already closely divided on such issues is especially troubling to blacks, the faculty members said. "The Supreme Court is our court of last resort," said James M. Douglas, dean of Florida A&M University's law school. "It was where we could go to get the United States of America to do the right thing."
Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, said of Alito's nomination: "There is going to be a lot more drama and a lot more tension this time around."
Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.