Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. promised a panel of senators yesterday that he would dispense justice to the rich and poor equally and without ideological bias if confirmed to become the 110th Supreme Court justice.

His opening statement in the first day of his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee borrowed a page from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who said the role of a judge more resembled an umpire who calls balls and strikes than an activist-advocate for a partisan or ideological position.

“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,” Judge Alito said.

The statement also emphasized his humble upbringing and commitment to the rule of law, a point likely to be brought up by Democrats who want answers to questions about abortion, presidential authority and other hot-button issues.

“There is nothing that is more important for our republic than the rule of law,” he said. “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.”

But Democrats on the committee — notably Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts — warned Judge Alito that he still faces questions about his handling of cases involving the poor and unfortunate.

Judge Alito listened to the senators with a blank expression, his head cocked slightly to the right. He is nominated to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is the swing vote on some of the most politically divisive court cases.

Judge Alito arrived at the Hart Senate Office Building shortly before his noon hearing after having breakfast with President Bush at the White House. He was greeted by groups of well-wishers who raucously cheered him as he entered the building. Appearing almost embarrassed, Judge Alito simply waved and mouthed “thank you” several times.

After raising a beefy right hand and swearing to tell the truth, Judge Alito — an appeals court judge for 15 years — was almost apologetic about the thousands of cases that he has ruled on and hundreds of opinions he has written.

“The members of this committee and the members of the staff who have had the job of reviewing all those opinions really have my sympathy,” he said. “I think that may have constituted cruel and unusual punishment.”

Yet Judge Alito was also unafraid to distance himself from the elite image of lawyers. He recalled going to Princeton University during the late 1960s and how different it was for a boy who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood.

“It was a time of turmoil at colleges and universities, and I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly,” he said. “I couldn’t help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community.”

In their opening statements yesterday, Democrats on the committee made it clear that they will throw all manner of arguments painting Judge Alito as a right-wing ideologue in hopes that one or two might resonate with the public.

Confident Republicans are dismissing the Democratic tactic. Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, stood outside the hearing room and called it a “hail Mary pass” to block a certain confirmation. Then, recalling Democrats’ stance on the separation of church and state, he corrected himself and called the tactic “a very long, secular pass.”

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, acknowledged that the deep division over the nomination was very much a sign of the times.

“In a sense, it’s not about you,” he told the nominee. “You find yourself in the middle of one of the most significant national debates in modern constitutional history.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, warned his Democratic colleagues against opposing Judge Alito simply because they don’t like the political outcome of some of his rulings.

“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,” he said.

Republicans repeatedly pointed out that nominees often decline to answer questions on issues that might come before the court so as not to make political commitments in exchange for confirmation.

Mr. Biden chuckled at this, recalling the recent failed nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the same high court seat. In that case, it was Republicans who forced her to withdraw because they worried about her flimsy record as a jurist.

“They sure wanted to know what Harriet Miers thought about everything,” he said. “They sure wanted to know in great detail. They were about ready to administer a blood test.”

Mr. Kennedy said matters had changed since Judge Alito’s confirmation hearings in 1990, when the Senate confirmed him without opposition.

“We now have the record of Judge Alito’s 15 years on the bench and the benefit of some of his earlier writings that were not available 15 years ago, and I regret to say that the record troubles me deeply,” he said.

After Mr. Kennedy concluded his withering analysis, all turned to Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican.

“I have a much more positive view of Judge Alito,” he began, drawing laughs from all in attendance, including Mr. Kennedy.

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