WASHINGTON—President Bush appeased his restive conservative allies Monday by choosing Judge Samuel Alito as his new Supreme Court nominee, but he set up a potentially grueling Senate confirmation struggle by inviting a clash with Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Alito, 55, a 15-year federal appeals-court judge whose views on abortion have angered liberal groups, could drive a handful of moderate Senate Republicans into an alliance with Democrats. While his solid judicial credentials and intellectual heft make him a formidable nominee, he could face a Senate filibuster fight even though most senators would prefer to avoid one.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of 22 Democrats who voted to confirm Chief Justice John G. Roberts, called Alito a "needlessly provocative nomination."
Liberal activists went further.
Bush "has chosen to divide Americans with a nominee guaranteed to cause a bitter fight," said Ralph Neas, the president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that's been at the center of previous judicial-nomination struggles. Neas vowed to wage a national campaign against Alito for what Neas called his "record of ideological activism against privacy rights, civil rights, workers' rights and more."
Conservative senators rejoiced at Alito's selection.
"I believe Judge Alito has every quality necessary to be a great Supreme Court justice," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who's also a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Conservative activists did too.
"We are extremely pleased," said James C. Dobson, the chairman of Focus on the Family, an influential lobby for social-conservative causes. Dobson said any nominee that upset People for the American Way as much as Alito did "is worthy of serious consideration. ... We applaud the president for this outstanding nomination."
Senate Democrats accused Bush of buckling to his conservative base after it forced White House Counsel Harriet Miers to withdraw her nomination to the court last week. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who'd urged Bush to nominate Miers, said Alito's confirmation "would leave the Supreme Court looking less like America and more like an old boys' club."
Alito was born in 1950 in Trenton, N.J. He graduated from Princeton University and from Yale Law School. He served in senior positions in the Justice Department during the 1980s, pleaded 12 cases before the Supreme Court and was twice confirmed by the Senate: once as U.S. attorney in northern New Jersey, and in 1990 to sit on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Philadelphia.
"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," Alito said after Bush announced his nomination Monday morning at the White House. Alito and his wife have two children.
If confirmed, Alito would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Before Bush nominated Miers, White House officials said he was mindful of the need for diversity on the nation's highest court. If Alito succeeds O'Connor, that will leave Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only woman there.
Even if Democrats can't defeat Alito, his confirmation could provoke them to filibuster, a parliamentary maneuver in which a minority of senators block votes until 60 of the 100 senators vote to end debate.
The potential for a filibuster puts the spotlight on a bipartisan group of 14 senators who agreed in May to hold together against a Republican effort to prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees. The 14 agreed to support a filibuster—or to prohibit one—only if "extraordinary circumstances" warranted.
One key member of the group, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said Monday that after the Judiciary Committee's hearings, "there is a potential for the Gang of 14 to perform a pivotal—if not decisive—role."
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a supporter of a woman's right to choose abortion, said such a confrontation might not occur.
"I don't think there's any basis for a filibuster here," he said, adding that the Senate may not dispense with Alito's nomination until the new year.
Specter, who's known Alito for about 20 years, said the judge voiced support for the legal foundation of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion-rights case, during a private meeting Monday.
Specter said Alito described Griswold v. Connecticut—a 1965 case that established the right to privacy on which Roe turns—as "good law." He said Alito also indicated that the longer a decision was in effect and the more times it was reaffirmed, that gave it "extra precedential value."
Still, the abortion question looms large over Alito.
In 1991 he was part of a three-judge panel that upheld most of a Pennsylvania law that restricted abortions. The court rejected only one provision, which required women who wanted abortions to notify their husbands. Alito dissented on that portion of the ruling, arguing that spousal notification didn't place an undue burden on women.
"It does not signify disagreement with Roe v. Wade," Specter said of Alito's dissent.
Concerned Women of America, a conservative group that had opposed Miers, praised Alito as an "excellent choice."
With equal speed, NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion-rights group, announced its opposition.
"Alito's confirmation could shift the court in a direction that threatens to eviscerate the core protections for women's freedom guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, or overturn the landmark decision altogether," NARAL President Nancy Keenan said.
Bush, on introducing Alito to the nation shortly after 8 a.m., described him as a jurist who "has a deep understanding of the proper role of judges in our society.
"He understands that judges are to interpret the laws, not to impose their preferences or priorities on the people."
Bush's announcement came after administration officials—including Miers and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card—huddled with the president over the weekend at Camp David plotting how to recover from a politically disastrous week.
Miers withdrew her nomination to the court Thursday, and on Friday a senior White House aide—I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby—was indicted in connection with the CIA-leak investigation. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush had locked in on Alito last Thursday as his choice for Miers' replacement.
Miers spoke with Specter several times over the weekend.
Like Chief Justice Roberts, who'd seemed predestined to sit on the court since his days at Harvard, Alito has long been viewed as a potential future justice.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a fellow Princeton alumnus, reminded Alito on Monday that the 1972 Nassau Herald, Princeton's yearbook, concluded Alito's biographical sketch by observing: "Sam intends to go to law school and eventually warm a seat on the Supreme Court."
"Well, that was a college joke," Alito replied. "I think my real ambition at the time was to be the commissioner of baseball."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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