Shortly after Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination to become the next associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, President Bush announced Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals as his next pick. If confirmed, Alito would replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and all of America is asking, Who is he? What is his background, his experience, and more importantly, how will he interpret the U.S. Constitution?
Unlike Ms. Miers, Judge Alito has a fifteen-year record as a federal judge from which we can glean the answers to these important, pressing questions.
Born in New Jersey in 1950, the 55-year-old judge earned his bachelor's degree from Princeton before going on to YaleLawSchool, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious Yale Law Journal. During the Reagan Administration, Alito worked in the solicitor general's office;afterwards, he served as U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey until President George H. W. Bush nominated him for a spot on the Third Circuit Court.
His marked conservatism has earned him the nickname "Scalito," as his approach to constitutional law reportedly mirrors that of Justice Antonin Scalia, who was nominated to the High Court by President Reagan. Some Alito supporters, however, criticize this nickname, claiming his constitutional philosophy more closely resembles that of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, or that of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
Two months prior to the Alito nomination, U.S. News and World Report ran an online bio of the Judge, whose name has long been on the President's "short list." The author of the piece, freelance writer Bret Schulte, quotes Pepperdine law Professor Douglas Kmiec as saying, "Sam Alito is in my mind the strongest candidate on the list. I know them all...but I think Sam is a standout because he's a judge's judge. He approaches cases with impartiality and open-mindedness."
Currently, Alito sits on one of the more liberal-leaning circuit courts, where he is known for his thoughtful and polite dissentions. In the landmark case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Alito authored the only dissent. While the Third Circuit majority struck down a Pennsylvania law that required married women seeking abortions to consult their husbands, Alito argued that "economic constraints, future plans, or the husbands' previously expressed opposition," all of which constitute potential reasons for abortion, "may be obviated by discussion prior to abortion."
But, Professor Kmiec argues, not all of Alito's decisions are markedly conservative. As Schulte reports, in Saxe v. State College Area School District, Alito authored the majority opinion, ruling that the school has no right to punish students for offensive speech, so long as the vulgarity is not disruptive. "That's not a conservative outcome," Kmiec told Schulte.
Of course, the real question is, will Alito be confirmed? With last year's threats of filibuster and the so-called "nuclear option" that would disallow the filibustering of presidential nominees still fresh in the congressional memory, America wonders what will happen next. During the debate over Bush's nominations to the lower court, the infamous "Gang of 14" senators struck a deal to avoid both the filibuster and a change of Senate rules. But is that deal going to hold, or are all bets now off?
Alito began preliminary meetings with senators during the first week of November, starting with centrist Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, one of the Gang of 14. Although Nelson stopped short of endorsing Alito, he said he was "impressed" by what he heard. According to an Associate Press report, Nelson called Alito a moderate jurist, not a "judicial activist," or one who would "take an agenda to the bench."
Two senators on the Republican side of the notorious Gang of 14 have already thrown full support toward Alito, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. DeWine called Alito "a great pick" from "the mainstream of conservative judges," while Graham noted that Alito's "qualifications are beyond reproach."
Democrats might have a hard time arguing with that, as in 1990 a Democratically-controlled Senate voted unanimously to confirm Alito to the Third Circuit Court. Before that, the Senate confirmed him to serve as federal prosecutor, also unanimously.
Reportedly so far, none of the Democrats in the Gang of 14 have broached the subject of a filibuster. Still, according to The Washington Times reporter Charles Hurt, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Democrat from Louisiana and one of the Gang, shrugged and rolled her eyes when asked her thoughts on the nomination. Later, she reportedly said she had concerns.
Some Democrats have also said that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, is being unrealistic in his goal to wrap up the nomination before Christmas. In fact, according to Fox News.com, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, seems interested in slowing down the process. "It's far more important to do it right than to do it fast," he said.
While the Senate may be taking time to mull over Alito's qualifications, the special interest groups outside of Washington are not. The Washington Times reports that People for the American Way President Ralph G. Neas accused Bush of choosing "to divide Americans with a nominee guaranteed to cause a bitter fight." The statement was issued less than ten minutes before the president introduced Alito as his pick.
By contrast, conservative groups such as Concerned Women for America have called Alito an "outstanding choice." And William Greene, President of RightMarch.com, writes that "NOTHING could be more important to fight for than this fight for the Constitutional heart and soul of the U.S. Supreme Court."
No matter what, battle lines are drawn for this nominee and Americans are asked again to worry about filibusters and the possible collapse of the Constitution. We often start to wonder, are these concerns legitimate, or are they politics as usual? If we are to be informed, we must research nominations on our own. If we are to be involved, we must write to our elected officials. After all, how can the represent us if they don't know what we think?
Who is Samuel A. Alito Jr.? He is the president's pick to be the next Supreme Court Justice. Will he warm a seat on the High Court's bench? With the current bloody battle for control of our courts, the answer to that one is anybody's guess.