MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
New documents are out today related to the nomination of Samuel Alito. He's President Bush's nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The material comes from the presidential libraries for Ronald Reagan and for George H.W. Bush, and there are nearly 200 pages in all. NPR's Ari Shapiro has spent the afternoon reading them, and he joins us now.
Ari, what's new here?
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
Well, the set of papers contains a sort of personal statement of conservative philosophy from Judge Alito, and in that statement, Alito rejects the idea that women have a constitutional right to abortions. This document's from 1985. He was applying to be deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration. And in it, he writes, `I am and always have been a conservative and an adherent to the same philosophical views that I believe are central to this administration.' He then goes on to say, `I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.' He calls these legal positions, quote, "in which I personally believe very strongly."
SIEGEL: I want you to put this in some context for us. Why would Samuel Alito have been writing this in 1985?
SHAPIRO: Well, the easiest answer is that he wrote it because he believed it, but there are also other factors. This was a job application, and his statement was an answer to part of the application that asked for information, quote, "pertinent to your philosophical commitment to the policies of this administration." Alito was a career attorney at the time trying to land a position as a political appointee, and so it was in his best interest to portray himself as a staunch conservative, just as it's in his best interest now to portray himself as someone who's not an ideologue.
SIEGEL: Well, does what he writes in this letter differ from what we already knew about his position on, say, abortion?
SHAPIRO: Not really, no. Soon after he was nominated, Alito's mother told reporters that of course her son opposes abortion. As a judge on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, Alito voted in favor of part of a law that would have required wives to notify their husbands before getting an abortion. The Supreme Court later disagreed with him; that was in the case of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. I think most senators, liberal and conservative, probably believe that Alito personally objects to abortion, but his personal position really isn't the question. The question is: Would he overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 case that made abortion legal?
Alito has said, in private meetings with Democratic senators, that Roe deserved great respect. There's this issue of precedent and settled law. Roe vs. Wade has now been settled law for roughly 30 years. It's been upheld in more recent rulings. And so even if Alito would have personally decided the case differently in 1973, his respect for precedent, or what's known in legal circles as stare decisis, is a factor to considering when trying to--factor to consider when you're trying to forecast what he would do today. Of course, stare decisis is not absolute; there are reasons to overturn cases, even if they are settled law, as John Roberts made a point of mentioning at his hearing to be chief justice.
SIEGEL: It seems that reaction to this document has been along fairly predictable political lines.
SHAPIRO: That's right. As soon as word of the letter got out, groups on both sides responded. The liberal group People for the American Way said, `Judge Alito's letter shows fervent allegiance to virtually every pet cause of the radical right.' And they said, `It contradicts administration attempts to cast him as a mainstream conservative.' On the conservative side, the American Center for Law and Justice said, `The letter cannot be used to disqualify him for a seat on the high court.' They said, `The Senate should focus on Judge Alito's judicial philosophy and his 15-year record of service on the US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.'
SIEGEL: Ari, how important are these documents actually compared with, say, his opinions as a justice over those 15 years?
SHAPIRO: Well, Chief Justice Roberts, the last nominee for the Supreme Court, laid out a sort of defense that Alito could use for these government documents saying as a government lawyer, he was representing his client at the time. Of course, this document was not a letter he wrote as a government lawyer, so that defense may not work. Of course, there are these 15 years of judicial opinions, which are nothing but his judicial philosophy. And I imagine that'll be the meat of what we see discussed in his confirmation hearings.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Ari Shapiro.