Alito Stresses 'Rule of Law' in Opening Statement

Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito introduces his wife, Martha Ann Alito, as his hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee are set to begin.
Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito introduces his wife, Martha Ann Alito, as his hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee are set to begin. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Charles Babington and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Samuel A. Alito Jr. sought to reassure senators yesterday that divisive policies he once advocated as a government lawyer do not necessarily signal how he would rule if confirmed to the Supreme Court, saying a judge "can't have any preferred outcome in any particular case."

In his first public statement since President Bush tapped him for the high court on Oct. 31, Alito indirectly responded to critics who say his writings from his years in the Reagan administration Justice Department show he is predisposed to outlaw abortion, restrict affirmative action and expand presidential authority, if given the chance.

"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's appearing before them, or a comment that is made by a colleague during the conference on the case," Alito said during an 11-minute opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will begin questioning him today.

"The role of a practicing attorney is to achieve a desirable result for the client in the particular case at hand," said Alito, who wrote two controversial memos as a Reagan administration lawyer in 1985. "But a judge can't think that way. A judge can't have any agenda . . . and a judge certainly doesn't have a client. The judge's only obligation -- and it's a solemn obligation -- is to the rule of law."

On the first day of his confirmation hearing, Alito, a judge on a Philadelphia-based federal appeals court for the past 15 years, delivered his statement in measured tones without referring to his notes, after listening to three hours of opening statements by the committee's 10 Republicans and eight Democrats. Their comments -- before and after Alito's statement -- split along party lines, with Republicans praising him and Democrats warning that he faces a difficult task in trying to convince them he would not shift the court dramatically to the right.

Alito, 55, must answer many more questions to meet "the awfully high burden of proof of being nominated to the Supreme Court, particularly in light of the fact that many of his previous statements and decisions are right on the edge of being extreme," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters shortly after the nominee's statement, and "in light of the fact that Sandra Day O'Connor is the swing vote on the court and he is replacing her."

Another committee Democrat, Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), said he and his colleagues will press Alito especially hard on the issue of executive authority in light of revelations that Bush authorized expanded spying on Americans for four years. "You're going to have to go back pretty deep into history to find another nominee that will have faced so many questions on the power of a president, particularly during a war," Durbin told reporters.

Republicans welcomed Alito's chance to begin answering critics after 10 weeks of often acerbic national debate, in which conservative and liberal groups agreed that O'Connor's replacement may have a significant and long-lasting impact on a court that frequently splits 5 to 4 on high-profile cases. Several said Alito faces a tougher battle than did recently confirmed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who replaced the late William H. Rehnquist, a fellow conservative.

Alito "is going to be in for a real hard time" but probably will be confirmed on "a close vote," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) told reporters. Democrats "see this pick as being a more seismic shift on the court," he said.

Committee Democrats showed more skepticism about Alito than they did in their opening remarks about Roberts, who was confirmed by the full Senate on a 78 to 22 vote.

"To put it plainly, average Americans have had a hard time getting a fair shake in his courtroom," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), adding that Alito's overall record "troubles me deeply."

Like other Democrats, Kennedy bored in on what he called Alito's "clear record of support for vast presidential authority."

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