Alito's Way: Conservative Judge Faces the Senate

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Commentator Clarence Page weighs in on Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito's record and his upcoming U.S. Senate confirmation hearings. Documents relating to some of Alito's earlier judgments and legal opinions indicate the judge is far more conservative than many Democrats are comfortable with.

ED GORDON, host:

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin its confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Our commentator Clarence Page explores the strengths and weaknesses of nominee Alito's record and likens the hearings to an audition of a different kind.


Back when I was a kid, the mere mention of an audition for The Supremes would have conjured up visions of Diana Ross and the Motown sound. Nowadays I think of Senate confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. That's what Judge Samuel Alito is thinking these days, too. He faces a Washington version of "American Idol" on January 9, the Senate Judiciary Committee. Watch for Republicans to greet his song-and-dance routine warmly, like Paula Abdul on a nice night, and watch for Democrats to be about as warm and nurturing as Simon Cowell on a cold day in January. Alito, remember, is filling the seat currently occupied by Sandra Day O'Connor, the high court's first woman. As a moderate swing voter on hot-button issues like abortion and affirmative action, she was just about the best deal liberals and moderates could expect from a conservative president. Alito, by contrast, has Democrats worried. As a young Justice Department lawyer, he argued against abortion's constitutionality. He offered strategies to overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion. As a judge, he was once overruled by the Supreme Court after upholding a Pennsylvania law that required married women to inform their husbands before having an abortion.

But like any good stealth candidate, Alito's record is mixed. As a judge, he sided with advocates of abortion rights in three other cases. In another timely topic, he once argued that attorney generals who illegally eavesdrop on American citizens should be immune from civil suits, but his wiretap memo does not actually defend eavesdropping without a warrant. It mainly deals with the question of whether government officials can be sued for damages when they make a mistake.

Alito is the perfect stealth candidate for these times. His paper trail certifies his conservatism, but unlike Judge Robert Bork, who was rejected, Alito tempers his conservatism with respect for precedent and pragmatic strategies. He'd rather push for small changes and build on them over time than win a radical change that'll get reversed. That makes him appear less threatening to liberals and moderates, but his impact as a Supreme Court justice on abortion and wiretapping and other privacy rights could last for generations.

Judicial appointments are not really show business; they just look like it sometimes on TV. Alito is an American judge, not an `American idol.' He's a thoughtful man who calls for thoughtful questioning. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get in Supreme Court nominees, but you can't blame us for trying to find out.

GORDON: Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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