Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The Senate yesterday confirmed Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. as the 110th justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

After a private swearing-in ceremony at the Supreme Court, Justice Alito took the front-row seat of Sandra Day O’Connor at President Bush’s State of the Union address before Congress last night.

Yesterday’s 58-42 vote in the Senate was the second-narrowest Supreme Court confirmation in more than a century. It ended a tumultuous seven months since former Justice O’Connor announced her retirement and rewards a decades-long effort by conservatives to reshape the court.

“This is a monumental step forward,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said shortly after the largely partisan vote in which Justice Alito received 20 fewer votes than Mr. Bush’s first Supreme Court nominee, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Democratic Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska joined almost all the chamber’s Republicans in supporting the nomination. Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was the only Republican to oppose confirmation.

“Sam Alito is a brilliant and fair-minded judge who strictly interprets the Constitution and laws and does not legislate from the bench,” Mr. Bush said yesterday before his State of the Union speech. “He is a man of deep character and integrity, and he will make all Americans proud as a justice on our highest court.”

During his address to Congress last night, Mr. Bush thanked the Senate for confirming Justices Roberts and Alito.

“I will continue to nominate men and women who understand that judges must be servants of the law and not legislate from the bench,” he said, to a standing ovation from half the chamber.

Another White House ceremony in Judge Alito’s honor is scheduled for today, at which he will recite his oath of office a second time.

Justice O’Connor’s retirement, which was quickly followed by the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, was the Supreme Court’s first departure in 11 years, a time during which liberals and conservatives amassed millions of dollars and marshaled thousands of volunteers for the pending fight.

Liberals boasted scalps from previous nominations, most notably that of former federal Judge Robert H. Bork, whose 1987 nomination by President Reagan ended in a demoralizing defeat for conservatives. In 1991, they came within three votes of defeating the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas.

Such fights left Republicans gun-shy about pushing nominees with well-established conservative judicial philosophies. In 1990, for instance, President George Bush named “stealth nominee” David H. Souter, who has disappointed conservatives by becoming a reliable liberal vote on the high court.

But the current president, who has campaigned twice on a promise to put conservatives on the court, hasn’t shied from a fight.

Mr. Hatch, former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he has greater hope in the federal courts “than I have in many years” with Justices Roberts and Alito on the high court.

“I don’t think either of them is going to be a Souter,” he said yesterday. “To be honest, when David Souter was confirmed, I knew he would be a moderate or liberal.”

The confirmations also come after a host of high-profile federal court rulings that have stirred public resentment toward the courts.

In recent years, federal courts have struck down “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, ruled unconstitutional a state amendment against homosexual “marriage” and approved expanded eminent domain laws that let the government seize private property.

As if on cue, separate rulings yesterday from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and 2nd Circuit ruled unconstitutional a federal ban on “partial-birth” abortion. That ruling means that the Supreme Court, with Mr. Bush’s newly minted justices, will almost certainly review one of the most significant abortion cases in recent years.

At this, conservatives cheered while pro-choice supporters saw a terrible omen of things to come.

“The Senate voted to confirm Judge Alito to the Supreme Court where he will likely hear cases involving a woman’s health very soon,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who opposed both of Mr. Bush’s nominees for fear they will curtail the federal right to abortion. “It is my hope that he follows the path of his predecessor, Justice O’Connor. Unfortunately, I fear he may not.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said Judge Alito will serve with “honor and distinction.”

“This is an important and proud day for America,” he said after the vote. “We know that the conservative judicial philosophy that Judge Alito embraced as a federal appeals court judge for 15 years will serve as the cornerstone of his tenure on the high court. Judge Alito understands the limited role of the judiciary and is committed to interpreting the Constitution, not rewriting it.”

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