Thursday, January 12, 2006

There were no smackdowns yesterday. No broken gavels. No one walked out in tears.

After 18 hours of testimony and 700 questions, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. kept his Supreme Court nomination on track despite the efforts of Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to flap the unflappable jurist from New Jersey.

“I regard him as the most qualified judge” to join the Supreme Court, said 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge Leonard Garth, who recalled taking walks in New Jersey years ago with his former clerk to grab some peanuts and coffee in the afternoon.

They often wound up at a store called Ward’s, Judge Garth recalled, where a special blend of java was named for the Supreme Court nominee: “Judge Alito’s Bold Justice Blend.”

Laughter rippled through the hearing room. And it was like Evian in the desert.

Later in the afternoon, after lunch, witness after witness confirmed what viewers already knew: the soft-spoken, self-effacing scholarly Judge Alito is also a man of the highest integrity. A family man, beloved and respected by his colleagues. Teflon.

But the blue-state senators, especially Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, still weren’t convinced. He began the hearing, hands shaking and looking downright irritated that his efforts to derail the nomination had failed.

In a bid to portray Judge Alito as anti-homosexual and anti-women, Mr. Kennedy tried to tie the nominee to the conservative Concerned Alumni of Princeton, but the documents he requested were reviewed by staffers until 2 a.m. yesterday and turned up nothing.

While the legislators behaved at times as if waiting for their nightly news sound bite, Judge Alito remained unfazed.

While the dark forces of the Senate aides behind the panel BlackBerried away, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s high-pitched voice squeaked to new “how dare they” heights.

“This is a big deal about nothing,” the Utah Republican said of the Vanguard case. He then added: “Who goes into public service to make money?”

Judge Alito nodded knowingly.

“I don’t think you’ve been treated fairly,” Mr. Hatch trilled.

While committee chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, commended Judge Alito on his “patience” and “endurance,” he also lauded his “very loyal family, led by your wife.”

He also talked of speeding things up. “I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Martha Alito, who the day before had burst into tears and left the hearing room, sat complacently, pursing her lips and smiling maternally at the panel while Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, mouthed more platitudes about Judge Alito’s patience and demeanor during the hearings.

Part “Quiz Show,” part “Survivor”, the hearings weren’t exactly riveting television but they did shed light on the brutal process of Senate confirmation.

No Post-It was left unturned. Indeed, for a nominee who graduated from college circa 1972, Judge Alito may be the only law student who preferred a night in the library to fraternity parties, keggers or anti-war protests. No inhaling. No DWIs. No foolish, reckless 1970s behavior which has come back to haunt many among his generation who aspire to public office.

Yesterday, Judge Alito seemed more confident. His manner recalled every bespectacled, 1600-score SAT dweeb who faced down the BMOCs who will one day be working at Jiffy Lube.

“It’s been a long three days, obviously,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who couldn’t crack Judge Alito’s meticulous answers.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, flashed his supercilious smile and interjected some levity into the hearings when he told the committee that Judge Alito and his sister Rosemary, a respected trial attorney, used to debate each other as teenagers at home in New Jersey.

Asked who won, Judge Alito chuckled and said, “I’ll take the Fifth Amendment.”

The cranky Mr. Kennedy looked ill. The American Bar Association had completed an investigation on Judge Alito, which weighs 11 pounds. Nowhere was any smoking gun.

In the end, it was 86-year-old Appeals Court Senior Judge Ruggero Aldisert who won over everyone. The noted scholar spoke eloquently in favor of Judge Alito, his 3rd Circuit colleague.

Judge Aldisert — his tie a little rumpled, his gray beard sparse and gnarly — looked the polar opposite of the slicked back senators in Thomas Pink shirts and gold cufflinks. He appeared and sounded like the angel at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

With a twinkle in his eye, he recalled swearing in a young lawyer 40 years earlier: Orrin G. Hatch.

“He also argued his first case in front of me, and he won,” Judge Aldisert recalled.

“Awwwww,” cooed Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, kidding his colleague. “I never knew you won one.”

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