Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. sought to distance himself yesterday from staunchly conservative views he expressed 20 years ago, but some liberals and conservatives said they see the comments as the best indication yet of judicial philosophies he would bring to the bench. One liberal group said it will use the remarks in ads opposing Alito's confirmation.
In meetings with Democratic senators, Alito suggested that his comments in a 1985 job-application letter do not necessarily indicate how he might rule on sensitive cases. In successfully seeking a promotion in the Reagan administration's Justice Department, Alito wrote that he was "particularly proud'' of contributing to cases arguing "that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.'' He added, "I personally believe very strongly" in such positions.
Senators who met privately with Alito yesterday said he played down the remarks' significance. They said that he noted they are two decades old and that he stated a judge must rule according to the law, not personal sentiments.
"He said, first of all, it was different then," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters after meeting with Alito. "He said, 'I was an advocate seeking a job, it was a political job, and that was 1985. I'm now a judge, I've been on the circuit court for 15 years, and it's very different. I'm not an advocate, I don't give heed to my personal views. What I do is interpret the law.' "
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) recounted a similar conversation. "He indicated that that was 20 years ago and it was a job application, and since being on the [appeals] court he has participated in several decisions related to having an abortion," Bingaman said in an interview. "He thinks that those decisions are what he should be judged on."
But several advocacy groups said the 1985 letter gives insight into Alito's thinking because he outlined his conservative convictions in vividly personal terms, and because several of his key rulings as an appellate judge are in line with those beliefs.
"This memo is so significant because it conveys his legal views," said Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice. "He can't say he was just representing the views of a client or the government. These are his views, and therefore they are the best window into how he would rule if confirmed."
At least one prominent conservative who supports Alito agreed that he should not be allowed to distance himself from the 1985 remarks. "This idea that all the folks in the Reagan administration were all apparatchiks who didn't believe what they were saying and writing is surreal," said Bruce Fein, who also was a Justice Department official during Ronald Reagan's presidency. "In Alito's memos, it's clear that he wasn't writing these things because he was forced to do so. He wrote them because he believed them."
Other conservative backers of Alito say that judges routinely ignore their personal views in upholding long-standing precedents. Janet M. LaRue of Concerned Women for America said it is impossible to predict how Alito might rule on a case such as a challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide.
"It's quite clear that the Constitution is silent on that issue," LaRue said. "It's unfair for anybody to try to extrapolate how the judge might rule on a case involving abortion." She said Alito "exercises judgment and not will, which is exactly what we want in a judge."
Alito's supporters say his appellate court rulings on issues such as abortion show he is in the political mainstream. In one case, he supported a Pennsylvania law requiring married women to notify their husbands before having an abortion. He voted to strike down a law that imposed strict new requirements on poor women seeking federally funded abortions, and ruled that a New Jersey ban on a late-term abortion procedure was unconstitutional.
In a 1985 memo to Attorney General Edwin I. Meese III, Alito also touted his membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a conservative group. It denounced admissions policies that increased the number of women and minorities on campus and reflected what the group called "the liberal-radical body of thought" ruling the university.
"In the mid-and-late 1960s, changes resulted in many academically subpar applicants being admitted primarily because they belonged to minority groups," said a 1974 pamphlet issued by the group.
At the same time, the pamphlet said, alumni interviewers noticed more students of "weak character, suspect motives and lack of commitment to Princeton."
The Trustee Committee on Alumni Affairs published a denunciation of the group as "a persistently hostile and negative voice" that had done "a disservice to the university."
Founded in 1972, the group stopped publishing its quarterly magazine in 1985.
T. Harding Jones, one of the founders of the group, said he recalls Alito making a minor financial contribution to the group but added that he was not on the board, did not serve on the group's advisory committee, and was not involved in any aspect of its magazine. Records show that Alito wrote no articles and published no letters in the magazine.
Ralph G. Neas of the liberal People for the American Way said the 1985 letter "makes a powerful case against Alito's confirmation," because it underscores convictions reflected in several of his rulings on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which he joined in 1990. "What he was sharing with Ed Meese was his legal views," Neas said.
Neas said his group is "already working" on an anti-Alito TV ad based on the letter.
Staff writer Jo Becker contributed to this report.