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President Bush today nominated federal Judge Samuel Alito to be associate justice of the US Supreme Court. If confirmed, the 55-year-old Alito would succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a more centrist justice who is retiring. Alito has strong backing from the conservative wing of the Republican Party; Democrats are wary. The president's announcement this morning seemed to ring the starting bell for a long-anticipated ideological battle over the direction of the high court. We have several reports coming up. First, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG reporting:
Once again, it was 8 AM on a Monday morning when the president stepped to the lectern in the White House with his nominee. This time it was not his longtime lawyer Harriet Miers at his side, but a tried-and-true conservative icon in the federal judiciary, Samuel Alito. The president, who four weeks ago had praised Miers for her lack of judicial experience, this time pointed to Alito's 15 years on the bench.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: As a Justice Department official, federal prosecutor and judge on the United States Court of Appeals, Sam Alito has shown a mastery of the law.
TOTENBERG: In his remarks, Alito spoke in broad terms of his judicial philosophy, using some of the same phrases that the president has used to describe what he wants in a Supreme Court justice.
Judge SAMUEL ALITO (US Supreme Court Nominee): Federal judges have the duty to interpret the Constitution and the laws faithfully and fairly, to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and to do these things with care and with restraint, always keeping in mind the limited role that the courts play in our constitutional system.
TOTENBERG: Alito is one of the conservative stars of the judiciary. A New Jersey native, he served in the Reagan Justice Department, arguing 12 cases before the Supreme Court, then became the US attorney in New Jersey, where he amassed a record as a tough prosecutor but suffered an embarrassing loss when 20 top mobsters were acquitted after a long trial. In 1990, the first President Bush appointed him to the federal appeals court. His conservative record there earned him the nickname in the press of `Scalito,' a play on the name of the Supreme Court's most outspoken conservative, Antonin Scalia.
Conservatives, especially cultural conservatives, were elated by the choice today. Here's Jay Sekulow of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.
Mr. JAY SEKULOW (American Center for Law and Justice): This was a grand slam for conservatives. This is exactly the kind of nominee that the entire base has been hoping for.
TOTENBERG: Liberal groups, on the other hand, were dismayed. Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way.
Mr. RALPH NEAS (President, People For the American Way): This is going to be the most important, most controversial Supreme Court confirmation battle since Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.
TOTENBERG: What makes conservatives so happy about Alito and liberals so unhappy is the nominee's record on the bench. He's been generally hostile to abortion rights, supportive of states' rights and narrow in his interpretation of anti-discrimination laws. In 1991, he wrote an opinion that would have upheld Pennsylvania's law requiring that husbands be notified before their wives can have an abortion. The Supreme Court, in voting to strike down that provision as unconstitutional, cited the problems that battered women would have if they had to tell their husbands about an impending abortion. Said the court, `The state may not give to a man the kind of dominion over his wife that parents exercise over their children.'
Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, cites her own case as an example. When her husband abandoned her and the couple's three children, Michelman found herself suddenly destitute, on welfare and pregnant. But she said she had to leave the hospital to notify her husband before she could get an abortion.
Ms. KATE MICHELMAN (Former President, NARAL Pro-Choice America): Judge Alito fails to recognize the deep and personal and profound humiliation and degradation and indignity of such a requirement. His opinion in the Pennsylvania case raises profound questions of his views about women and their equality, their autonomy, their right to self-determination.
TOTENBERG: Women's rights groups also pointed to Alito's decisions in discrimination cases--for example, an opinion that would have invalidated the federal law mandating unpaid family and medical leave for both private and public employees. Although the Supreme Court eventually upheld the law, Alito prior to that had voted to invalidate the key enforcement provision for state employees. Debra Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Ms. DEBRA NESS (President, National Partnership for Women and Families): Had he prevailed in a case like that, five million state employees would have been denied the protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
TOTENBERG: Harvard law Professor Charles Fried--who once was Alito's boss in the Reagan Justice Department--however, was elated by today's appointment.
Professor CHARLES FRIED (Harvard University): This is a dream appointment, and it's a dream appointment for the same reason that John Roberts was. They're very similar types of judges; careful, not flashy, not sarcastic, not adventuresome.
TOTENBERG: All of this will go into the confirmation cauldron that began boiling today. The Senate Republican leadership had begged the president not to appoint someone so soon since it will be next to impossible to have a confirmation vote before January, and even confirmation hearings will be a stretch before the new year.
But the White House needed to change the subject, to move the public's attention away from the indictment of Vice President Cheney's top aide and the continuing investigation of the president's top political aide, Karl Rove, not to mention the Miers debacle. So after weeks of being besieged by his own base over the Miers nomination, the president is back in the more comfortable stance of fighting Democrats. As Gary Bauer, president of a conservative think tank called American Values, put it...
Mr. GARY BAUER (President, American Values): If there is a lesson in all of this that the president would have internalized, it is that on anything that matters in Washington, there is usually a fight. And if you're going to be in a fight, it's much better to be fighting with your political opponents than it is to be punching somebody in your family in the nose.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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