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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)

"In decision after decision on the bench, he has excused abusive actions by the authorities that intrude on the personal privacy and freedoms of average Americans," Kennedy said. "And in his writings and speeches, he has supported a level of overreaching presidential power that, frankly, most Americans find disturbing and even frightening."

Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the committee's ranking Democrat, said: "It's important to know whether he would serve with judicial independence or as a surrogate for the president nominating him."

Several Democrats also chastised Bush for missing an opportunity to diversify the court by appointing a female or minority member.

Committee Republicans devoted less time than they had during Roberts's hearing to urging the nominee to refrain from answering too many questions. "Now you have that opportunity to set everyone straight on your record and your approach to deciding cases," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa).

Democrats and liberal groups say they are mindful that some past Supreme Court nominees -- such as Justice Clarence Thomas -- tried to distance themselves from previous statements or suggested they had given little thought to contentious issues such as the constitutionality of abortion.

After Alito delivered his statement, Schumer said: "Every nominee has used the same empty platitude, they will follow the rule of law as a judge. . . . Judge Alito's assurances today provide scant comfort to those who want a mainstream judge and demand rigorous questions tomorrow."

Several GOP senators touted Alito's academic credentials, job experience and appellate rulings.

Republicans also said the Senate should apply what Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called "a judicial, not a political, standard" to Alito's record. They said Democrats are focusing inappropriately on which side Alito has taken in cases involving various social issues.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said: "The idea that there are spots on the Supreme Court reserved for certain ideologies is a falsehood. Seats on the bench are not reserved for causes or interests."

Still, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who supports abortion rights, said that "the widespread concern about Judge Alito's position on a woman's right to choose" is "perhaps the dominant issue in these hearings."

Alito began the day by having breakfast with Bush at the White House. Bush walked his nominee into the Rose Garden, where he told reporters that "Sam Alito is eminently qualified" for the post. "Sam's got the intellect necessary to bring a lot of class to that court. He's got a judicial temperament necessary to make sure that the court is a body that interprets the law and doesn't try to write the law. . . . I know the American people will be impressed, just like I have been impressed."

As he opened the hearing at noon, Specter cited "a heavy sense of drama." He said Alito "can look like a flaming liberal or he can look like an arch conservative," depending on which of his 4,800 appellate cases are being scrutinized.

Throughout most of the first day, Alito sat impassively with his head cocked, smiling occasionally as he listened to the Republicans and Democrats take turns making their 10-minute statements. Finally, at 3:28 p.m., it was his moment. The room was silent for a long moment, as the nominee poured himself some water and pulled from his jacket pocket a folded sheaf of notes that he barely glanced at. In a calm, quiet voice, he opened with an old joke about a nervous lawyer's first appearance before the Supreme Court, and the punch line led him into a lengthy account about his family and other early influences that shaped him.

By day's end, Specter lamented, "so many senators are already in concrete" before Alito begins to answer their questions. He blamed a few Republicans, but mostly Democrats who he said had arrived with "a long statement of charges" rather than an open mind. "I'm determined," Specter said, "to see these hearings conducted where we make a decision based upon what the nominee says, not what senators say about the nominee."

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