Confirm Samuel Alito

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

THE SENATE'S decision concerning the confirmation of Samuel A. Alito Jr. is harder than the case last year of now-Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Judge Alito's record raises concerns across a range of areas. His replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could alter -- for the worse, from our point of view -- the Supreme Court's delicate balance in important areas of constitutional law. He would not have been our pick for the high court. Yet Judge Alito should be confirmed, both because of his positive qualities as an appellate judge and because of the dangerous precedent his rejection would set.

Though some attacks on him by Democratic senators and liberal interest groups have misrepresented his jurisprudence, Judge Alito's record is troubling in areas. His generally laudable tendency to defer to elected representatives at the state and federal levels sometimes goes too far -- giving rise to concerns that he will prove too tolerant of claims of executive power in the war on terror. He has tended at times to read civil rights statutes and precedents too narrowly. He has shown excessive tolerance for aggressive police and prosecutorial tactics. There is reason to worry that he would curtail abortion rights. And his approach to the balance of power between the federal government and the states, while murky, seems unpromising. Judge Alito's record is complicated, and one can therefore argue against imputing to him any of these tendencies. Yet he is undeniably a conservative whose presence on the Supreme Court is likely to produce more conservative results than we would like to see.

Which is, of course, just what President Bush promised concerning his judicial appointments. A Supreme Court nomination isn't a forum to refight a presidential election. The president's choice is due deference -- the same deference that Democratic senators would expect a Republican Senate to accord the well-qualified nominee of a Democratic president.

And Judge Alito is superbly qualified. His record on the bench is that of a thoughtful conservative, not a raging ideologue. He pays careful attention to the record and doesn't reach for the political outcomes he desires. His colleagues of all stripes speak highly of him. His integrity, notwithstanding efforts to smear him, remains unimpeached.

Humility is called for when predicting how a Supreme Court nominee will vote on key issues, or even what those issues will be, given how people and issues evolve. But it's fair to guess that Judge Alito will favor a judiciary that exercises restraint and does not substitute its judgment for that of the political branches in areas of their competence. That's not all bad. The Supreme Court sports a great range of ideological diversity but less disagreement about the scope of proper judicial power. The institutional self-discipline and modesty that both Judge Alito and Chief Justice Roberts profess could do the court good if taken seriously and applied apolitically.

Supreme Court confirmations have never been free of politics, but neither has their history generally been one of party-line votes or of ideology as the determinative factor. To go down that road is to believe that there exists a Democratic law and a Republican law -- which is repugnant to the ideal of the rule of law. However one reasonably defines the "mainstream" of contemporary jurisprudence, Judge Alito's work lies within it. While we harbor some anxiety about the direction he may push the court, we would be more alarmed at the long-term implications of denying him a seat. No president should be denied the prerogative of putting

a person as qualified as Judge Alito on the Supreme Court.


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