Nominee Alito claims neutrality

By Jesse J. Holland The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito told senators yesterday that good judges don’t have an agenda, don’t look for partisan outcomes and always “do what the law requires” as the Senate opened hearings on President Bush’s choice for the high court.

“A judge can’t have any agenda. A judge can’t have a preferred outcome in any particular case,” Alito told the Judiciary Committee in a brief statement in which he made a distinction between judges and attorneys working for clients.

Alito, a conservative jurist on the federal appeals court, would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been a decisive swing vote on abortion, affirmative action and death penalty cases. If confirmed, Alito would be the nation’s 110th Supreme Court justice.

After listening to opening statements from the 18 members of the committee, Alito got his chance to speak and described his Italian immigrant father’s background, his mother’s work experience and his own academic career. He told the panel about his legal philosophy.

“The role of a practicing attorney is to achieve a desirable result for the client in the particular case at hand,” Alito said. “But a judge can’t think that way. A judge can’t have any agenda, a judge can’t have any preferred outcome in any particular case and a judge certainly doesn’t have a client.”

In his 11-minute statement, the judge gave no indication about how he might respond to the tough questions Democrats have promised on the divisive issues of executive power, abortion and the privacy rights.

Alito said his solemn obligation is to the rule of law and that a judge must do what the law requires.

“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,” he said.

In a prelude to days of grilling, several committee Democrats expressed misgivings about Alito’s 15 years of decisions and opinions as a judge on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and his writings during his tenure as a lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department.

“Your record raises troubling questions about whether you appreciate the checks and balances in our Constitution – the careful efforts of our Founding Fathers to protect us from a government or a president determined to seize too much power over our lives,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The hearings opened amid a growing debate over executive authority and Bush’s secret decision to order the National Security Agency to wiretap Americans in the terror war.

“In an era when the White House is abusing power, is excusing and authorizing torture and is spying on American citizens, I find Judge Alito’s support for an all-powerful executive branch to be genuinely troubling,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio offered a counterpoint. “Your modest approach to judging seems to bode well for our democracy,” he said.

Republicans also defended Alito, describing him as a fair-minded and brilliant jurist who would be a welcome addition to the court.

“Sam’s got the intellect necessary to bring a lot of class to that court,” said Bush in a good-luck sendoff for Alito at the White House.

Politics loomed large in the confirmation process, but Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah urged his colleagues to put them aside in assessing Alito’s qualifications.

“We must apply a judicial, not a political, standard to this record,” Hatch said.

Alito was Bush’s second choice to replace O’Connor. White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew from consideration after conservatives questioned her judicial philosophy and qualifications for the Supreme Court.