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Judge `can't have an agenda,' Alito says on 1st day of hearings

WASHINGTON—Samuel Alito, finally able to speak on behalf of his own nomination to the Supreme Court, pledged to the Senate on Monday that his only fidelity is to the rule of law, to open-mindedness and fairness.

While attorneys fight to achieve results for their clients, "a judge can't think that way," Alito told the Senate Judiciary Committee on the first day of his confirmation hearings, which will continue all week.

"A judge can't have an agenda. A judge can't have a preferred outcome in any particular case," Alito said. "The only obligation—a solemn obligation—is to the rule of law. In every single case, the judge has to do what the law requires."

Alito's opening statement capped a day of partisan sparring over his record, though he was asked no questions. His interrogation begins Tuesday. For nearly four hours Monday, Democratic senators delivered opening statements criticizing Alito's record as outside the mainstream, with several describing him as an enemy of a woman's right to an abortion and an apologist for unchecked executive power.

Several Democrats framed Alito's nomination in the context of arguments over the Bush administration's domestic-spying program, saying Alito's record showed support for an "all-powerful" president.

Though Alito didn't specifically address any of the criticism, he did say: "No person in this country, no matter how high or powerful, is above the law, and no person in this country is beneath the law."

Republicans complained that Democrats appeared to have prejudged Alito.

"A number of the opening statements by the Democrats sounded more like indictments than about opening statements," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Noting that Alito has written more than 300 opinions as a federal appellate judge, Specter added: "You can select opinions that prove he is flaming liberal or an archconservative."

Democrats emphasized Alito's nomination as a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often casts key votes in high-profile decisions. The opinions of O'Connor, who was nominated by President Reagan, made her the court's moderate on affirmative action, religious expression, environment and civil liberties.

"Each of these cases makes clear how important a single Supreme Court justice is," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's top Democrat. "It is crucial that we determine what kind of justice Samuel Alito would be, if confirmed, and if he would be an independent justice."

Or as Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., put it: "Before we give you the keys to the car, we'd like to know where you plan to take us."

Monday set the stage for the remainder of the week, when Alito will be subjected to a grueling barrage of questions.

"This guy's going to be in for a real hard time," predicted Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who's questioned Bush's wiretapping program.

Graham said he met with Alito last week to discuss executive power and that he disagreed with some of the nominee's interpretations of presidential authority. But he said he saw no reason to vote against the nominee and professed himself "comfortable" with Alito on the high court.

As Democrats worried that Alito would shift the court to the right, Specter argued to the contrary. He said September's confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Roberts' embrace of "modesty" and "stability" might mean that the court wouldn't change direction no matter how Alito voted.

"If that holds true, Judge Alito, if confirmed, may not be the swing vote regardless of what position Judge Alito takes on the judicial spectrum," Specter said.

Roberts' relatively smooth confirmation hovered over Monday's hearing, with senators often invoking his answers as a standard for judging Alito, and Republicans seemingly nudging the nominee to echo him.

Alito's opening statement lacked the brevity and force that Roberts used to disarm critics, but in practical terms, Alito said many of the same things.

Roberts famously described himself at his hearings as an "umpire" and spoke eloquently of how the role of judge was fundamentally different from his prior roles as a private advocate and government attorney. Alito, whom many regard as less polished but comparably brainy, offered no facile analogies but struck the same themes.

Republicans highlighted the nominee's experience and qualifications, including the American Bar Association's decision to give him its highest rating for the Supreme Court. Several accused Democrats of opposing Alito simply because he's conservative.

"There are a number of groups who really don't want a fair-minded judge who has an openness to both sides of the argument," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "Rather, they want judges who will impose their liberal agenda on the American people, views so liberal that they cannot prevail at the ballot box."

Alito began his big day by having breakfast with President Bush. Afterward, Bush said the nominee has the intellect and judicial temperament "necessary to make sure that the court is a body that interprets the law and doesn't try to write the law. ... And my hope, of course, is that the Senate bring dignity to the process and give this man a fair hearing and an up or down vote on the Senate floor."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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