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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings today on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court. If confirmed, Alito would replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and that would change, perhaps dramatically, the ideological makeup of the court. We'll talk about the Alito nomination and the confirmation process with our legal analysts in just a few minutes. First, NPR's Nina Totenberg has the day's events from Capitol Hill.

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): If you would raise your right hand, do you solemnly swear that the testimony...


And with that, Samuel Alito was sworn in to testify late this afternoon. Like the 18 members of the Judiciary Committee who spoke before him, his was only an opening statement, a recitation of his background and the values he learned from his hardworking parents. When he went to college, said Alito, it was at Princeton, only 12 miles down the road but a world away from the blue-collar community he grew up in. `It was the 1960s and '70s,' Alito said, `and the campus was in turmoil.'

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Judge SAMUEL ALITO (US 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 subtle acknowledgement of the conservative side of the divide Alito occupied in the early days of the culture wars. He went on to work in the Reagan administration, but he said when he became a judge, his approach changed.

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Judge ALITO: 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: This morning the Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman, Arlen Specter, opened the Alito hearings, seeming to anticipate what promises to be fairly contentious questioning of the nominee.

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Sen. SPECTER: There is, I think, a heavy sense of drama as these hearings begin. This is the quintessential example of separation of powers under our constitutional process, as the president nominates, the Senate confirms or rejects and the successful nominee ascends to the bench.

TOTENBERG: Specter acknowledged that these hearings will be quite different from the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice Roberts. While Roberts had a relatively skimpy two-year judicial paper trail, Alito has a long 15-year record on the bench. In addition, while in the Reagan administration, he wrote memos clearly expressing his own legal views. When he applied for a higher-level job in 1985 at the age of 35, he wrote that he was extremely proud of his role in trying to reverse the Supreme Court's landmark abortion decision, Roe vs. Wade. He said that, in his view, the Constitution does not protect a woman's right to have an abortion. And he said that he opposed the Supreme Court's one-person, one-vote reapportionment decision.

Finally, there's the fact that, unlike Roberts, a conservative replacing a conservative on the Supreme Court, Alito is replacing the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate Reagan appointee who has cast a decisive fifth vote in more than 150 cases in the last decade; among them, cases involving abortion, affirmation action, executive power and separation of church and state. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden.

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): We all act like there's not an elephant in the room.

TOTENBERG: `In short, Alito, if confirmed, could tilt the Supreme Court dramatically to the right,' said Biden. `The Senate and the country have the right to know Alito's overall views.'

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Sen. BIDEN: The Constitution provides for one democratic moment, Judge, before a lifetime of judicial independence, when the people of the United States are entitled to know as much as we can about the person that we're about to entrust with safeguarding our future and the future of our kids. And, Judge, simply put, that is this moment, the one democratic moment in a lifetime of absolute judicial independence. And that's what these hearings are about, in my view.

TOTENBERG: Republicans countered that the nominee should not tell the Senate what his views are on issues that might come before the court. Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Apply the same standards to Judge Alito that we applied to John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and all of the other sitting justices. Let's not invent a new standard for Judge Alito or change the rules in the middle of the game.

TOTENBERG: Tomorrow Judge Alito starts trying to walk that tightrope. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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