Progress of Alito Hearings Stirs Debate

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter expresses hope that questioning of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito is nearing an end, but some Democrats disagree.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, the latest in our series of conversations on Iraq, this time a writer coming to terms with his mixed feelings on the war.

But, first, this is day three of Samuel Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Democrats have been probing the nominee's past controversial writings; Republicans have been praising his accomplishments. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Democrats and Republicans have seen the same set of answers very differently. That became clear early on today as Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman, optimistically forecast that an end to the questioning was in sight.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): I expect we'll need to work a long day today. It's my hope that we might finish the questioning of Judge Alito. That might be overly optimistic, but we'll see how things go.

SHAPIRO: Ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont obviously had a different outlook.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): A number of us have been troubled by what we see as inconsistencies in some of the answers and we're going to want to go into those in some depth.

SHAPIRO: He said Alito's answers about his position on the one-man, one-vote principle, ethics questions and executive power have all seemed inconsistent to Democrats. But as questioning resumed, abortion was the first topic Alito had to navigate. Like many Democrats yesterday, Richard Durbin of Illinois pressed Alito to commit to upholding Roe vs. Wade.

(Soundbite of hearings)

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): John Roberts said that Roe vs. Wade is the settled law of the land.

SHAPIRO: Roberts was President Bush's nominee to be chief justice.

(Soundbite of hearings)

Sen. DURBIN: Do you believe it is the settled law of the land?

Judge SAMUEL ALITO: Roe vs. Wade is an important precedent of the Supreme Court. It was decided in 1973. So it's been on the books for a long time. It has been challenged on a number of occasions, and I discussed those yesterday, and it is my--and the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the decision. And I think that when a decision is challenged, and it is reaffirmed, that strengthens its value.

SHAPIRO: Alito stopped short of making the same commitment as Roberts. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback then tried to pull Alito in the opposite direction.

(Soundbite of hearings)

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): Then over 200 other cases the court has revisited and revised earlier judgments. In other words, in some portion, or in all of the case, the court got it wrong in some 200 cases, and thank goodness the court's willing to review various cases.

SHAPIRO: Brownback talked about Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Plessey vs. Ferguson to eliminate school segregation. Alito agreed with Brownback that Supreme Court precedent can be overturned.

(Soundbite of hearings)

Judge ALITO: The court certainly got it wrong in Plessey and it got it spectacularly wrong in Plessey and it took a long time for that erroneous decision to be overruled.

SHAPIRO: But staying on the tightrope that he'd been walking for the last two days, Alito did not go so far as to complete Brownback's analogy and say that Roe vs. Wade could similarly be overturned despite Supreme Court precedents. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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