Preview: The Alito Hearings
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
The coal mine explosion in West Virginia, Ariel Sharon's illness, Jack Abramoff's plea deal, Tom DeLay bowing out--these stories have pushed the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito off the front page recently. But tomorrow, Judge Alito will again be front and center. The Senate Judiciary Committee takes up Alito's nomination to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.
Today on the Sunday talk shows, members of the Senate committee gave an indication of how contentious the hearings might become. Many Democrats have expressed concerns that Judge Alito may be too conservative. New York Democrat Charles Schumer told NBC's "Meet The Press" he expects the nominee to be candid about his beliefs.
(Soundbite of "Meet The Press")
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): If he continuously, given his previous record, refused to answer questions and hid behind this shibboleth, I can't answer this 'cause it might come before me. It would increase the chances of a filibuster, absolutely.
ELLIOTT: But Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the committee chairman, told CBS' "Face the Nation" it was premature to even mention a possible filibuster.
(Soundbite of "Face the Nation")
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): I think it would be very much out of line to have a filibuster on Judge Alito. And there may be some things that could conceivably develop which would provide some basis for it, but I think all of this talk by Senator Schumer and others is just beating the tom-toms that ought not to be beaten.
ELLIOTT: Also on CBS, the committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, expressed concern over Judge Alito's views on abortion.
(Soundbite of "Face the Nation")
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I want to know: Is he willing to respect a woman's privacy? Is he willing to accept privacy of all Americans, men and women, but especially in this case where really is settled law?
ELLIOTT: We asked NPR's Ari Shapiro to give us a preview of the other issues the senators will raise.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
Executive authority is a big one, the president's power to do what he thinks he needs to do in times of war. And Alito wrote a 1984 memo on that issue that has some modern-day significance; it was about domestic wiretapping. As a Justice Department lawyer, Alito argued that a senior government official who breaks the law in the name of national security, even if he breaks the law knowingly, should be immune from civil lawsuits. That case involved a Nixon-era official who'd authorized illegal wiretaps. And, of course, today the Bush administration says its domestic surveillance program is legal; others disagree with that. But it's certainly something that Alito will be grilled about at his hearings.
ELLIOTT: How do you think he'll respond? How will he explain that document and his other writings from that era?
SHAPIRO: I think most of the documents from the Justice Department years, he'll say he was a lawyer working for a client, which was a conservative Reagan administration, and that if he'd wanted to argue positions that were not conservative, he would have had to find another job.
ELLIOTT: Now how exactly will the hearings work?
SHAPIRO: Well, first, each of the 18 Judiciary Committee members--there are 10 Republicans and eight Democrats--they're each going to make an opening statement. Then Judge Alito will make his opening statement, and then the questioning begins. There are several rounds of questioning, and each time the senators have a chance to grill Alito for a particular period of time.
ELLIOTT: Leading up to this hearing, the White House prepares its nominees. Do we have any information on how Alito's preparation is going?
SHAPIRO: Well, we've heard some reports from the people who are involved in what's called the murder boards, the mock hearings that they hold for him where he can practice. And they say that he's very smart, but he's a little testier than John Roberts was; he's the current chief justice and President Bush's last nominee. They say that Alito is a little more likely to challenge the senators. Although he's very smart, they say he may not be quite as smooth and composed as Roberts was. But they say that may work in Alito's favor because he could come across as your average guy, a normal human being.
ELLIOTT: Some interest groups have been running ads hoping to sway certain senators. Who are they targeting?
SHAPIRO: Well, some of them are targeting centrist Democrats who come from states that have more Republicans than Democrats. And the message seems to be, `If you vote against Alito or filibuster him, it'll come back to bite you when you're next up for re-election.' This question affects the Democrats not only in considering whether they'll vote for or against him, but also, whether they'll sign on to a filibuster if the leadership wants to stage one.
ELLIOTT: How long before the full Senate takes it up?
SHAPIRO: Well, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has said he would like a vote by the end of the month. That, of course, assumes that there's no Democratic filibuster, and it depends entirely on how the confirmation hearings go.
ELLIOTT: NPR's Ari Shapiro, thanks very much.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
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