Bush nominates Alito

Abortion rights at center stage in confirmation

November 01, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Setting off a partisan clash over his effort to steer the Supreme Court to the right, President Bush chose a staunch conservative, federal appellate Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., to replace the court's swing vote, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Republicans who helped sink Bush's previous choice enthusiastically endorsed yesterday's pick as top Democrats denounced Alito, 55, who during 15 years as a federal judge has issued consistently conservative opinions on a host of key constitutional questions, including his lone dissent in a landmark 1991 abortion-rights case.

Alito's past support for abortion-rights limits took center stage in the battle over his confirmation. Bush urged the Senate to vote on the nomination before the end of the year.

Alito "is one of the most accomplished and respected judges in America, and his long career in public service has given him an extraordinary breadth of experience," Bush said in an announcement from the White House.

Bush's allies warmly embraced Alito's nomination, a striking contrast to the reaction of Republicans and conservative activists a month ago when the president chose his counsel, Harriet E. Miers, for the post.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said Alito is "unquestionably qualified" for the court. "On the bench, he has displayed a judicial philosophy marked by judicial restraint and respect for the limited role of the judiciary to interpret the law and not legislate from the bench," Frist said.

Democrats, who had held their fire in response to Miers, called Alito a divisive nominee, and some faulted Bush for choosing a white male to replace O'Connor, the first woman on the court.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said the Senate has to find out whether Alito is "too radical for the American people."

Alito is a "needlessly provocative" choice, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who said his party will consider the Alito nomination with "heightened vigilance" in the wake of the Miers flap.

"Instead of uniting the country through his choice, the president has chosen to reward one faction of his party at the risk of dividing the country," Leahy said.

Alito, an Ivy League-educated native of Trenton, N.J., has a resume that contrasts starkly with Miers'. He spent his early career as a government lawyer, including arguing a dozen cases before the Supreme Court while working in President Ronald Reagan's solicitor general's office; two years as New Jersey's top prosecutor; and the past 15 years as a judge on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Educated at Princeton University and Yale Law School, Alito is respected as a brilliant legal mind. His nickname is "Scalito," a reference to Justice Antonin Scalia, another Italian-American admired by conservatives. But unlike Scalia, Alito is regarded as polite, soft-spoken and open-minded.

Alito comes with the long paper trail that conservatives wanted, including his dissenting opinion in a ruling that overturned a Pennsylvania law requiring that a husband be notified before his wife could get an abortion. In his 1991 opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, Alito wrote that the Legislature had a reasonable justification for requiring spousal notification because such consultation could make an abortion unnecessary.

When the Supreme Court struck down the law on a 6-3 vote, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist quoted Alito in his dissent.

Karen Pearl, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Alito "would undermine basic reproductive rights" and that her group will oppose him.

"It is outrageous that President Bush would replace a moderate conservative like Justice O'Connor with a conservative hard-liner," Pearl said in a statement.

The National Pro-Life Action Center praised Alito's nomination, mentioning his lone dissent in Casey as evidence that he "has a firm grasp of an American view of law and justice that is necessary to fulfill his duties."

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee and supports abortion rights, said the Casey ruling "will be a factor" in Alito's confirmation hearings. But he said the opinion was not at odds with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established abortion rights, because it did not question the constitutional underpinnings of Roe.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York cast doubt on Bush's confirmation timetable. "When there is a controversial nominee for a pivotal swing vote on the high court, the procedure should not be short-circuited, shortchanged or rushed. We need to be careful here," Schumer said.

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