WASHINGTON – Judge Samuel Alito absorbed hours of criticism from Senate Democrats at close quarters yesterday, then pledged at his confirmation hearings to do what the law requires “in every single case” if approved for the Supreme Court.
“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,” said Alito, the 55-year-old appeals judge who is President Bush’s choice to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor for the swing seat on a divided high court.
Alito spoke after several Democrats on the Judiciary Committee made clear they intended to question him with unusual aggressiveness across the next few days about abortion, presidential powers in an age of terrorism, his personal credibility and more.
“In an era when the White House is abusing power, is excusing and authorizing torture and is spying on American citizens, I find Judge Alito’s support for an all-powerful executive branch to be genuinely troubling,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)
“You give the impression of being a meticulous legal navigator, but, in the end, you always seem to chart a rightward course,” added Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Republicans, with a majority on the committee and the Senate, offered Alito shelter.
“As of right now, there’s no question that he’s going to have my vote,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)
And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Democrats against setting a precedent of filibustering Alito’s nomination on the basis of abortion rights. If that became the standard, there are many senators who believe so deeply that “an abortion is certain death for an unborn child that they would stand on their feet forever,” he said.
The atmosphere was different by several degrees from confirmation hearings last fall for Chief Justice John Roberts. He had originally been named to succeed O’Connor, but then Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, and Bush quickly made Roberts his choice for that post. That meant Roberts would be replacing one of the court’s most reliable conservative votes on abortion and other issues.
Bush’s next choice for the O’Connor vacancy, Harriet Miers, withdrew her nomination after coming under sustained criticism from conservatives who said they doubted her credentials on abortion.
Those two factors – plus the erosion in Bush’s public support as measured in the polls – combined to make for a feistier Democratic presence in the committee room, and a more contentious opening day of hearings.