WASHINGTON (AP) ?” Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito picked his way carefully Tuesday through the issues of abotless wiretapping, satisfying Senate Republicans at his confirmation hearings but provoking Democratic expressions of displeasure.
The Bill of Rights applies "in times of war and in times of national crisis," the 55-year-old appeals court judge said, although he declined to specify whether President Bush acted properly in ordering wiretaps without warrants in selected cases as part of the “war on terror.”
Asked repeatedly about abortion, he assured the Senate Judiciary Committee he would first take previous rulings into account. At the same time, he stressed that precedent, including the landmark 1973 decision establishing a woman’s right to end her pregnancy, is not binding on the high court.
"I would approach the question with an open mind and I would listen to the arguments that were made," Alito said, who wrote two decades ago that he did not believe the Constitution includes the right to an abortion.
Alito, Bush’s pick to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for the swing seat on the court, answered questions for nearly 10 hours, seated alone at a witness table draped in red. A phalanx of relatives and administration aides sat behind him; a large digital clock stared out at him, marking time for each senator’s allotted 30 minutes of questioning.
The New Jersey native distanced himself at times from some of the conservative views he expressed as a younger man, saying he had been a rank-and-file attorney in the Reagan administration at the time.
Under pressure from Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Alito acknowledged he did not know whether he had ever followed through on a promise he made to the Senate at the time of his confirmation to the appeals court in 1990.
At the time, he said he would avoid cases involving the Vanguard mutual fund company, where he had money invested. But he told Feingold he did not know whether he had ever told appeals court officials about his pledge. And discarding an earlier explanation, he said, "It was not a computer glitch," that led to his participation in a 2002 case involving Vanguard. He quickly added that after realizing the circumstances, he made sure the case received "an entirely new appeal" in which he played no part.
The hearings unfolded in an atmosphere of political intensity, heightened by O’Connor’s standing as a majority maker on numerous cases on a divided court. Bush’s first pick for the seat, Harriet Miers, withdrew in the face of implacable opposition from abortion opponents and other conservatives, and Democrats have repeatedly questioned why the same groups have cleared Alito’s appointment.
Alito also has been criticized by some as too likely to favor those in authority, including the president.
When asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy on Tuesday whether a chief executive could "override the laws and immunize illegal conduct," he responded: "No person in this country is above the law. And that includes the president and it includes the Supreme Court."
Alito sidestepped a follow-up question about the recent disclosure that Bush authorized some wiretaps without warrants as part of the “war on terror.” The issue "is very likely to result in litigation in the federal courts. It could be in my court. It certainly could get to the Supreme Court," he said.
More broadly, Alito said the Bill of Rights "applies at all times. And it’s particularly important that we adhere to the Bill of Rights in times of war and in times of national crisis because that’s when there’s the greatest temptation to depart from them."
The former Reagan administration lawyer and federal prosecutor had scarcely settled into his seat when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked about a 1985 memo in which Alito wrote that the Constitution did not provide for a right to an abortion.
"Well, that was a correct statement of what I thought in 1985 from my vantage point in 1985, and that was as a line attorney in the Reagan administration," Alito replied, adding it also reflected his own belief.
Also on abortion, he defended his dissent in a 1991 case in which he voted to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring women seeking abortions to notify their husbands. But he said at least twice he had "no agenda" to erase abortion rights, citing his rulings in two other cases as evidence.
Hours after Specter brought up the issue, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., raised it anew, saying that what he had heard from the witness led to "one inevitable conclusion: We can only conclude that if the question came before you, it is very likely that you would vote to overrule Roe v. Wade."
Alito countered, “I don’t know a way to answer a question about how I would decide a constitutional question that might come up in the future, other than to say I would go through that whole process” of judicial decision-making.
Given the strong possibility of a party-line vote in committee, it seemed at times that Alito was testifying at two parallel hearings. Democrats peppered him with questions about his rulings in cases involving civil rights, presidential power, criminal cases and more. Republicans often invited him to defend his actions and rulings of the past.
Leahy first mentioned Alito’s membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a group that opposed admission of increased numbers of women and minorities.
"I really have no specific recollection of that organization," Alito said, although he did not dispute that he belonged to it.
Moments later, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, returned to the issue.
"Let me just ask you directly, on the record, are you against women and minorities attending colleges?"
"Absolutely not, senator. No," he replied.
Said Hatch, "You know, I felt that that would be your answer. I really did."
Outside the committee rooms, senators of both parties offered differing assessments of the proceedings.
"I think Judge Alito went farther than Chief Justice Roberts did" in discussing abortion, said Specter, signaling satisfaction with the responses to his questions.
Schumer, D-N.Y. dissented. "We’re going to keep asking questions until we find out specific answers to how he feels about major issues confronting Americans today," he said.
Conflict of interest
?”Compiled by Treasure Porth,Vanguard staff