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Alito's record, character on display at hearings

Nominee a legal heavyweight, but not as polished as Roberts

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
Samuel Alito has been a federal appeals judge for 15 years.



Supreme Court
Samuel Alito
Crime, Law and Justice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It may have been a sly joke, or the idealistic dreams of a young man, but Samuel Anthony Alito made clear 32 years ago where he expected his career to take him: to the very top of the judicial profession.

In his 1972 Princeton University yearbook, next to a photo of himself, the bespectacled 22-year-old wrote: "Sam intends to go to law school and eventually to warm a seat on the Supreme Court."

Alito will get that chance Monday, when his pressure-filled confirmation hearings begin. It will be a chance for senators and the American public to learn about the federal appeals court judge. He was nominated by President Bush to fill the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Legal sources say he has done "pretty well" in "murder boards," preparatory sessions with government and conservative lawyers designed to mimic what he could face in the intense Senate hearings.

But these sources do not expect Alito to be as polished as Chief Justice John Roberts was during his hearings in September. Roberts was able to deflect a range of controversial topics with his articulate and friendly manner, and his confirmation was never in doubt.

"He (Alito) has a little more of an edge to him, not really as smooth as Roberts," said one source, who participated in the rehearsals but asked not to be identified by name.

"But the judge clearly knows his stuff. He's prepared. He can handle the give-and-take with a bit of toughness -- he is from New Jersey. But he can also be charming and even a bit academic. The judge never lost his cool, so I'm not worried about him."

A consistent conservative

Alito, 55, has been a federal appeals judge for 15 years, and a CNN analysis of more than 300 of his published opinions reveals a consistently conservative record, but one lacking a sharply worded partisan ideology. (Full story)

His writings present a jurist inclined to back the government regarding criminal prosecutions and search warrants, religious displays on government property, deportation proceedings, and businesses accused of discrimination.

It is that lengthy judicial record, as well as his nearly seven-year service in the Reagan White House, that could make his confirmation hearings more contentious. (Read a summary of Alito's key decisions)

"Influential segments of the radical right torpedoed the nomination of Harriet Miers because she didn't have a proven record of being a 'movement' conservative, dedicated to carrying out their political agenda on the bench," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, which opposes Alito's nomination. "The right is now giddy about the nomination of Samuel Alito -- undoubtedly because he has such a record."

A vital swing seat

For both liberals and conservatives, the political stakes with this vacancy are higher because Alito would replace O'Connor, a moderate conservative who backed abortion rights. Confirmation of Alito could tip the uneasy ideological balance of the high court further to the right.

At least one Democrat -- Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware -- has publicly raised the threat of a filibuster, while others in his party have not ruled it out. GOP sources said on the eve of hearings that they do not expect a filibuster when the full Senate prepares to vote later in the month, and are cautiously confident they have the 50 votes to assure confirmation.

A new political ad by Progress for America, which supports the nominee, goes after his critics. "Every day, desperate liberals make up a steady drip of attacks against Judge Samuel Alito," states the ad, which is titled, "Drip."

Views on abortion

Not surprisingly, abortion has become the flashpoint over the Alito nomination, headlined by a 1991 dissenting opinion. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he disagreed with the majority that struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring women seeking abortions to notify their husbands.

In a 1985 job application to be a deputy assistant attorney general, Alito offered his own views on the issue. Writing about his accomplishments, he noted: "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 abortion."

He added: "I am and always have been a conservative and an adherent to the same philosophical views that I believe are central to this (Reagan) administration."

And in another 1985 memo Alito offered his strategy on how the Reagan White House should approach whether to support limiting access to abortion.

"There may be an opportunity to nudge the (high) court ... to provide greater recognition of the states' interest in protecting the unborn throughout pregnancy," Alito wrote.

"I find this approach preferable to a full-frontal assault on Roe v. Wade ... It makes our position clear, does not tacitly concede Roe's legitimacy, and signals that we regard the question as live and open."

Despite Alito's advice, the White House eventually pursued a strategy of trying to overturn Roe altogether. The high court eventually rejected the effort and has affirmed the overall right to abortion in subsequent rulings.

Some legal analysts say the White House will follow the Roberts model of sidestepping direct answers when handling Alito's views on abortion.

"The trouble for Alito is he has much more of a record than Roberts," said Edward Lazarus, author of "Closed Chambers," a behind-the-scenes look at the Supreme Court.

"He's going to be accountable for the things that he's written in his 15 years on the bench. So I think that Roberts does provide some markers for Alito to shoot for when he's giving answers, especially on issues like Roe v. Wade, where Roberts was able to talk about his reverence for precedent, and I suspect you'll see much the same for Alito."

Son of an Italian immigrant

Friends have kidded Sam, as he is known, about his being born on April Fools' Day in 1950 and nominated for the high court by President Bush last Halloween.

His father, Samuel, was an Italian immigrant who later worked for years as the founding director of the New Jersey Office of Legislative Affairs. His mother, Rose, now 91, lives near his Newark-area home. She caused a bit of a stir the day her son was nominated by telling a reporter, "Of course he's against abortion."

Alito's wife, Martha-Ann, was a former law librarian, and his sister, Rosemary, is a private attorney in the state. He has two children.

Alito went to Princeton as an undergraduate, then to Yale Law School. He went on to work in the Reagan Justice Department from 1981 to 1987, then became U.S. attorney for New Jersey until 1990, when he began his current job.

Colleagues say he has a quirky sense of humor and eclectic tastes, and remains an intense Philadelphia Phillies fan who once dreamed of playing pro baseball. He even attended a Phillies fantasy camp, where other aging athlete wannabes mingled and worked out with former star players.

Alito once figured out how to change the copier toner and took phone messages for his entire staff when he gave them all Good Friday off. And when a fellow judge placed ornate lion statues outside her offices, Alito responded by putting up plastic pink flamingos beside his doors. The expensive lion statues were soon gone.

He is rare among judges in hiring an ideological mix of liberal and conservative law clerks, nearly all of whom have rallied around his Supreme Court nomination. He has said that give-and-take is healthy for a judge deciding complex, controversial appeals.

"When he interviewed me for the job, Judge Alito was not really interested in my grades or my take on the law, but learning about me as a person," said Jay Jorgensen, a Washington lawyer and 1997 law clerk.

The young, straight-laced Utah native said he initially did not know whether he could fit in with the slightly rumpled judge from New Jersey.

"He's a conservative, but it was clear that was not the defining part of his life," he said. "He is confident enough in his intellect to feel he can work through any problem fairly, and he maintains a curiosity about all things that enlightens his work as a judge."

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