Alito's Credibility Problem
Every Supreme Court nominee bears a heavy burden to demonstrate that he or she is committed to the constitutional principles that have been vital in advancing fairness, decency and equal opportunity in our society. As Judge Samuel Alito approaches his confirmation hearings next week, the more we learn about him, the more questions we have about the credibility of his assurances to us.
Consider these five areas:
1. 1985 job application : Alito was 35 when he applied for an important political position with Attorney General Ed Meese during the Reagan administration. Alito sought to demonstrate his "philosophical commitment" to Meese's legal outlook. He wrote that the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign had been his original political inspiration, even though he was only 14 at the time. His views on the law, he said, were inspired by his "deep disagreement with Warren Court decisions." He strongly objected to "usurpation by the judiciary" of the powers of the president, and supported the "supremacy" of the elected branches over the judiciary. Not surprisingly, Alito got the job.
The views expressed there raise serious concerns about his ability to interpret the Constitution with a fair and open mind. When this embarrassing document came to light, he faced a difficult decision on whether to defend his 1985 views or walk away from them. When I and others met him a short time later, he appeared to be renouncing them -- "I was just a 35-year-old seeking a job," he told me. But now he's seeking another, far more important job. Is he saying that he did not really mean what he said then?
2. Membership in "Concerned Alumni of Princeton." In 1972, the year Alito graduated from Princeton University, a group of wealthy alumni formed Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) to resist the growing influx of female, African American, Hispanic and even disabled students who were changing the face of Princeton "as you knew it." The university's most famous alumnus of the day, basketball star and later U.S. senator Bill Bradley, was invited into CAP initially but quickly found it "impossible to remain a member" because of CAP's "right-wing" views. A special committee of alumni, which included future Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, accused CAP of presenting a "distorted and hostile" view of the university. Alito joined CAP about that time, despite its purposes and reputation, and remained a member through 1985, when he cited his CAP membership as another qualification to join the Meese inner circle.
In 1987, when he was nominated to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey, and in 1990, when he was nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, he did not mention his CAP membership to the Senate Judiciary Committee or to then-Sen. Bradley, who introduced him to the committee at the nomination hearing and endorsed him "100 percent." Bradley says today that had he known about Alito's long membership in CAP he would have had serious questions about it. Alito now says he can't remember anything at all about CAP.
3. Failure to recuse himself in the Vanguard case : In 1990, during the confirmation process on his nomination to the 3rd Circuit, Alito disclosed that his largest investment was in Vanguard mutual funds. To avoid possible conflicts of interest, he promised us that he would recuse himself from any case involving "the Vanguard companies." Vanguard continues to be on his recusal list, and his investments in Vanguard funds have risen from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, in 2002 he failed to recuse himself when assigned to sit on a case in which three Vanguard companies were named parties and listed prominently on every brief and on his own pro-Vanguard opinion in the case. In this case, he and the White House have floated many excuses, but none provided any sensible explanation for his failure to keep his promise or follow his "personal practice" of recusing himself whenever there was any possible ethical question about his participation in a case.
4. His pledge to be absolutely impartial where the government is concerned : While chairing his confirmation hearings in 1990, I asked Alito how he could remain neutral in the cases that would come before him as a 3rd Circuit judge after his more than a dozen years of service representing the U.S. government. He stated that he would be "absolutely impartial" in all his cases. But in case after case involving the actions of U.S. marshals, IRS agents and other government officials, he has sided with the government and against the citizens, even when his fellow judges have told him he was off-base.
5. His promise to leave his personal beliefs behind when he became a judge : That's what he told me in 1990 he would do. But has he? In November 2000, at one of many Federalist Society meetings he spoke at, he indicated that he was a true believer when it came to the society's longstanding theory of an all-powerful executive. His endorsement of presidential power and his criticism of the Supreme Court for undermining it made clear that his philosophical commitment in 1985 still drives him.
Alito's words and record must credibly demonstrate that he understands and supports the role of the Supreme Court in upholding the progress we've made in guaranteeing that all Americans have an equal chance to take their rightful place in the nation's future. "Credibility" has rarely been an issue for Supreme Court nominees, but it is clearly a major issue for Alito.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.