KWAME HOLMAN: 55-year-old Samuel Alito, Jr. Appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee at noon today two months after being nominated by President Bush. He replaced the previous nominee Harriet Miers, who withdrew her nomination after a barrage of criticism from conservatives including that she lacked sufficient judicial experience.
Alito clearly does not have that problem. He spent six years as a lawyer in the Reagan White House and Justice Department, three as a U.S. attorney in New Jersey, and the last 15 years sitting on the third circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
But Alito's years of experience bring with them a lengthy paper trail, including several documents that have raised questions about his views on presidential power, civil rights and abortion.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: There is, I think, a heavy sense of drama as these hearings begin.
KWAME HOLMAN: Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter opened the hearings by citing two documents, a 1985 application for a White House job in which Alito wrote that the Constitution does not protect the right to an abortion, and a memo from that same year in which Alito advocated an approach to overturning Roe versus Wade.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: This hearing will give Judge Alito the public forum to address the issue as he has with senators in private meetings -- that his personal views and prior advocacy will not determine his judicial decision, but instead, he will weigh factors such as stare decisis - that is, what are the precedents that he will weigh women's and men's too reliance on Roe and he will consider too whether Roe is quote embedded in the culture of our nation.
KWAME HOLMAN: New York's Chuck Schumer previewed some of the pointed questions he and his Democratic colleagues will pose on the abortion issue.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: So we'll ask you: Do you still personally believe very strongly that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion? We will ask: Do you view elevation to the Supreme Court where you'll no longer be bound by high court precedent as the long sought opportunity to advance the goals of bringing about the eventual overruling of Roe V. Wade as you stated in 1985?
KWAME HOLMAN: But South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said some Democrats are obsessed with the abortion issue to the detriment of the Senate's advise and consent role.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Are we going to say as a body it doesn't matter how smart you are, how many cases you decided, how many things you have done in your life as a lawyer, forget about it, it all comes down to this one issue?
If we do, if we go down that road, there will be no going back. And good men and women will be deterred from coming before this body to serve their nation as a judge at the highest levels.
KWAME HOLMAN: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch added that no nominee should have to answer questions on how he might rule on specific issues. And Hatch said Alito's past writings should be considered independently, not lumped together by his opponents to score political points.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Each of these must be considered in its own context and its own terms rather than squeezed, twisted and distorted into something designed instead to support a preconceived position or serve a preplanned agenda.
KWAME HOLMAN: Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold did focus on a particular issue, one that came up during Alito's confirmation hearing for the court of appeals in 1990.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Judge Alito promised to recuse himself in cases involving a mutual-fund company with which he had substantial investments, Vanguard. He kept those investments throughout his service in the court of appeals and still has them today.
But in 2002 he sat on a panel in a case involving Vanguard. Since his nomination to the Supreme Court, we have now heard different explanations from the nominee and his supporters about why he failed to recuse himself.
Needless to say, the shifting explanations and justifications are somewhat troubling.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fellow Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts cited the controversy over the president's use of domestic spying following the 9/11 attacks without court approval. Kennedy said Alito's record shows a tendency to defer to the executive branch.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: I'm gravely concerned by Judge Alito's clear record of support for vast presidential authority unchecked by the other two branches of government.
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. And in his writings and speeches he has supported a level of overreaching presidential power that, frankly, most Americans find disturbing and even frightening.
KWAME HOLMAN: Several committee Republicans spoke more generally about the judicial branch, conveying their displeasure with so-called activist judges who legislate from the bench, ignoring constitutional guidelines. Alabama's Jeff Sessions.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: We don't want an activist judge. That's not what we want in this country. By activist I mean a judge who allows his personal views to overcome a commitment to faithfully following the law. Following the law as it is, not as you would like it to be, good or bad, following that law.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fellow Republican John Cornyn of Texas said activist judges have prohibited people from expressing their faith in public.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: There's no doubt where the founding fathers stood on this issue. They believed that freedom of expression included religious views and beliefs, so long as the government did not force people to worship in a particular manner, and remain neutral on what those views and beliefs were.
But this country has gotten seriously off track under the Supreme Court when it went so far as to limit the right of even private citizens to freely express their religious views in public.
KWAME HOLMAN: Alito's nomination is being scrutinized especially closely because he would succeed the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor who has been the swing vote in scores of court decisions. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin noted her role in matters of church and state responding to his colleague John Cornyn.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Justice O'Connor was the fifth vote to uphold the time-honored principles which bears repeating of separation of church and state. There was real wisdom in the decision of our forefathers in writing Constitution that gave us an opportunity to grow as such a diverse nation. And we should never forget it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Once all the members of the Judiciary Committee had spoken, Chairman Specter swore in Judge Samuel Alito.
SPOKESMAN: Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you will give before the Committee of the Judiciary of the United States Senate will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
JUDGE SAMUEL ALITO: I do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Then it was Judge Alito's turn to address the committee and the nation.
JUDGE SAMUEL ALITO: I am who I am in the first place because of my parents, and because of the things that they taught me. And I know from my own experience as a parent, that parents probably teach most powerfully not through their words but through their deeds. And my parents taught me through the stories of their lives.
And I don't take any credit for the things that they did or the things that they experienced, but they made a great impression on me. I got here in part because of the community in which I grew up. It was a warm, but definitely unpretentious down to earth community. Most of the adults in the neighborhood were not college graduates.
I attended the public schools. In my spare time I played baseball and other sports with my friends. And I have happy memories and strong memories of those days and good memories of the good sense and the decency of my friends and my neighbors.
And after I graduated from high school, I went a full 12 miles down the road, but really to a different world when I entered Princeton University.
A generation earlier I think that somebody from my background probably would not have felt fully comfortable at a college like Princeton, but by the time I graduated from high school, things had changed.
And this was a time of great intellectual excitement for me; both college and law school opened up new worlds of ideas. But this was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a time of turmoil at colleges and universities.
And I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly and I couldn't help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community.
I am here in part because of my experiences as a lawyer. I had the good fortune to begin my legal career as a law clerk for a judge who really epitomized open-mindedness and fairness. He read the record in detail on every single case that came before me.
He insisted on scrupulously following precedents, both the precedents of the Supreme Court and the decisions of his own court, the third circuit. He taught all of his law clerks that every case has to be decided on an individual basis. And he really didn't have much use for any grand theories.
After my clerkship finished, I worked for more than a decade as an attorney in the Department of Justice. And I can still remember the day as an assistant U.S. attorney when I stood up in court for the first time and I proudly said my name is Samuel Alito, and I represent the United States in this court. It was a great honor for me to have the United States as my client during all of those years.
And of course I have been shaped for the last 15 years by my experiences as a judge of the court of appeals. During that time I have sat on thousands of cases. Somebody mentioned the exact figure this morning. I don't know what the exact figure is but it is way up in the thousands. And I have written hundreds of opinions.
And the members of this committee and the members of their staff who have had the job of reviewing all of those opinions really have my sympathy I think that may have constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
I have learned a lot during my years on the Third Circuit, particularly, I think, about the way in which a judge should go about the work of judging. I have learned by doing, by sitting on all of these cases. And I think I've also learned from the examples of some really remarkable colleagues.
When I became a judge, I stopped being a practicing attorney. And that was a big change in role. The role of a practicing attorney is to achieve a desirable result for the client in the particular case at hand. But a judge can't think that way.
A judge can't have any agenda. A judge can't have any preferred outcome in any particular case. 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. And what that means is that in every single case the judge has to do what the law requires.
Good judges develop a certain habits of mind. One of those habits of mind is the habit of delaying, reaching conclusions, until everything has been considered. 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 is made by an attorney who is appearing before them or a comment that is made by a colleague during the conference on the case when the judges privately discuss the case.
It's been a great honor for me to spend my career in public service. It has been a particular honor for me to serve on the court of appeals for these past 15 years because it has given me the opportunity to use whatever talent I have to serve my country by upholding the rule of law.
And there is nothing that is more important for our republic than the rule of law. No person in this country no matter how high or powerful is above the law, and no person in this country is beneath the law.
Fifteen years ago when I was sworn in as a judge of the court of appeals, I took an oath. I put my hand on the bible and I swore that I would administer justice without respect to persons; that I would do equal right to the poor and to the rich; and that I would carry out my duties under the Constitution and the laws of the United States. And that is what I have tried to do to the very best of my ability, for the past 15 years. And if I am confirmed I pledge to you that that is what I would do on the Supreme Court. Thank you.
KWAME HOLMAN: Judge Alito will begin answering senators' questions tomorrow morning.