Alito Questioning Begins Today; Abortion a Top Issue

Judge Samuel Alito began his testimony before senators on Monday, affirming that a judge is obligated to the rule of law. Senators indicated that they will question Alito thoroughly.

“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,” Alito told the 18-member judiciary committee panel that will decide if he deserves a full Senate vote.

Alito, 55, will be questioned starting Tuesday on his views, including those on abortion, executive power and civil rights.

Seeking to assure the senators, Alito stated that his past views as a lawyer who advocated for his clients were different than the role he has undertaken for the past 15 years as an appellate judge. He also affirmed that he would put aside his views if confirmed as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court.

"The role of a practicing attorney is to achieve a desirable result for the client in the particular case at hand. But a judge can't think that way. A judge can't have any agenda," he said. "The judge's only obligation, and it's a solemn obligation, is to the rule of law."

The day’s speeches, however, were mostly from Senate Judiciary Committee members, who each had 10 minutes to speak. Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who favors abortion rights, said in his opening statement that “perhaps the dominant issue is the widespread concern about Judge Alito’s position on a woman’s right to choose.”

In 1985, while requesting a position as a lawyer within the Reagan administration, Alito stated that he felt abortion was not protected by the U.S. Constitution. His views drew fire from liberals in Congress and liberal activist groups. Conservatives, meanwhile, said that judgments on Alito’s competence should be made by looking at his judicial record.

After the day’s hearing was over, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) indicated in a statement that he views Alito’s comments as “empty."

“Every nominee has used the same empty platitude, they will follow the rule of law as a judge. But even as a circuit court judge, Alito has frequently bent or ignored precedent to move in an ideological direction and will have far more freedom to do so on the Supreme Court.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is pro-life, indicated during Monday’s hearings that despite veering off into other issues, the senators would come back to the abortion issue as the decisive factor in Alito’s confirmation, with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that nationalized abortion playing a central role.

"We're going to go off in all sorts of directions, but the decisions that are going to be made on votes on the committee and the votes on the floor is going to be about Roe," Coburn said.

Once each of the senators had finished giving their opening statements, Committee Chairman Specter worried that decisions about Alito had been made even before the first question had been asked.

“That applies to a few of the senators on my side of the aisle, but many more among the Democrats,” he said.

Ahead of today's questioning, Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice explained what he expected to be the main lines of questioning.

“I expect a broad series of questioning on issues ranging from abortion to executive power, including the War on Terrorism. I am also confident there will be quite a bit of discussion about Judge Alito’s church-state decisions,” he wrote on the ACLJ website ahead of the hearings. The ACLJ is a conservative legal firm focused on constitutional issues.

“Judge Alito has shown a conservative judicial philosophy that coincides significantly with the decisions we have advocated in court cases throughout the country, including the Supreme Court of the United States,” he said.

Meanwhile, the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, which often clashes in court with groups such as the ACLJ, reiterated concerns about Alito's views on race, religion and abortion rights during his time as a judge. It views Alito's positions as "hostile" to "fundamental civil liberties and rights." The group has strongly opposed Alito.