Alito steps back from memo


WASHINGTON -- Distancing himself from his past views on abortion and other social issues, Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. told senators yesterday that as a judge he would not impose personal opinions on issues that come before him.

Alito, continuing his visits with lawmakers, sought to play down the significance of a memo he wrote in 1985 in which he opposed racial and ethnic quotas and said he did not believe the Constitution afforded women the right to abortion.

The memo was part of a job application for a political position in the Reagan administration, and its release Monday drew concern among liberal senators and advocacy groups that Alito would attempt to legislate his views from the bench.

But after he met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a supporter of abortion rights, the California Democrat said she felt reassured that Alito would strictly interpret the law as he said he has done as a judge on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals since 1990.

Feinstein said Alito told her:

"It was different then. I was an advocate seeking a job. It was a political job. And that was 1985. I'm now a judge. ... I'm not an advocate. I don't give heed to my personal views. What I do is interpret the law."

Feinstein said she was persuaded. "I believe he was very sincere in what he said."

She said that Alito used the words stare decisis, meaning "to stand by that which is decided," in their discussion on the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's constitutional right to abortion.

She said that if after Alito's confirmation hearings she thought he would seek to overturn Roe, she would vote against him, as she did earlier this year with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Alito confronts the problem faced by other Republican nominees to the Supreme Court. Since 1980, the GOP platform has pledged that the president would appoint judges who will defend the "sanctity of life" and overturn the Roe decision.

To secure a high court nomination, judges nominated by Republicans must give the White House a strong hint that they oppose abortion and disagree with Roe. However, to win confirmation from Senate Democrats, they also must suggest that they have no plans to overturn it.

In 1987, Court of Appeals Judge Robert H. Bork went down to defeat in the Senate after he defended his view that Roe was wrong and should be overruled.

Since then, successful conservative nominees have told senators that they believe the Constitution includes a right to privacy, without saying whether they believe that right includes abortion. They have also stressed their support for precedent, without saying whether Roe is a precedent they would support.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said Alito's memo merely reflects his thinking at the time as a government employee.

Richard A. Serrano and David G. Savage write for the Los Angeles Times.

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