Alito to Face Questions from Senate Panel

Judge Samuel Alito takes an oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday.

Judge Samuel Alito takes an oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Senators begin questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Tuesday. Senators have outlined the issues they planned to raise — abortion, executive power and civil rights. Alito said he had no ideological agenda but would judge each case according to the law.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito says he would keep an open mind as a justice on the issue of abortion. Samuel Alito is answering questions at this hour from the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's the second day of his confirmation hearings. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Today's focus is on Alito's already stated views on abortion, presidential power, affirmative action, separation of church and state and a wide variety of other subjects. In each of these areas, Alito's previously expressed views, whether as a judge or when he served in the Reagan administration, are quite different and a great deal more conservative than those of the justice he's been nominated to replace, Sandra Day O'Connor. Yesterday in an opening statement, Alito introduced himself to the committee and the nation by talking about his hard-working parents; his mother, a teacher and principal, and his father, the head of the non-partisan New Jersey state legislative research service, and how they formed his values. He was raised, he said, in an neighborhood where few of the adults had a college education, and when he went to Princeton, it was just 12 miles down the road, but a whole world away. It was the late 1960s and early '70s, he said, and the campus was in turmoil.

Judge SAMUEL ALITO (Supreme Court Nominee): I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly, and I couldn't help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community.

TOTENBERG: It was a sotto voce acknowledgement of the conservative side of the divide Alito occupied in the early days of the culture wars. He went on to serve in the Reagan administration, advancing a conservative agenda, but he seemed to suggest things changed when he became a judge in 1990.

Judge ALITO: When I became a judge, I stopped being a practicing attorney, and that was a big change in role. The role of a practicing attorney is to achieve a desirable result for the client in the particular case at hand, but a judge can't think that way. 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. The judge's only obligation--and it's a solemn obligation--is to the rule of law. And what that means is that in every single case, the judge has to do what the law requires.

TOTENBERG: Democrats were clear, though, that they weren't accepting anyone's blanket assurances about the nominee. Senator Patrick Leahy.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Supreme Court nominations should not be conducted through a series of winks and nods designed to reassure a small faction of our population, while leaving the American people in the dark.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, some Democrats were openly skeptical about Alito's claim to having no agenda. Senator Charles Schumer said he intends to press the nominee about his record, and he expects answers.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): The logic of the mantra repeated by John Roberts at his hearing that one could not speak on a subject because the issue was likely to come before him quickly vanishes when the nominee has a written record, as you do, on so many subjects. Even under the so-called Ginsburg precedent, which was endorsed by Judge Roberts, Republican senators, the White House, you have an obligation to answer questions on topics that you have written about.

TOTENBERG: On abortion, for instance, Alito wrote in 1985 that, in his view, the Constitution does not protect a woman's right to an abortion. Said Schumer, `You've already given a prejudgment on a question likely to come before the court, so I submit you cannot use that as a basis for not answering.' But Republican Lindsey Graham noted that an answer that will please the Democrats will alienate some Republicans.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Millions of unborn children have been sent to certain death because of what judges have done. It's a two-sided argument. It's an emotional event in our society.

TOTENBERG: And most Republicans, like John Cornyn, urged the nominee, one way or another, to avoid answering substantive questions.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): What I want to also make sure of is that we don't hold you to a double standard, that we don't expect of you answers to questions that Justice Ginsburg and others declined to answer in the interest of the independence of the judiciary and in the interest of observing the canons of judicial ethics.

TOTENBERG: Democrats said yesterday they want to make sure that Alito falls within the judicial mainstream, prompting Republican Lindsey Graham to note that the Republicans won the national election in 2004.

Sen. GRAHAM: I expect that most all of us, if not all of us, will vote for you. And I would argue that we present from the center line to the right ditch in our party, and if all of us vote for you, you've got to be pretty mainstream.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear a live audio stream of the Alito hearings at npr.org.

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