The confirmation fight over federal Judge Samuel Alito, nominated by President George W. Bush to replace outgoing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, made one final stop in Philadelphia over the weekend before landing for good at the U.S. Capitol, where the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing into Alito's fate.
In town for the occasion on Sunday were Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and conservative Christian leaders who held a nationally televised "Justice Sunday" event at a North Philadelphia church. The program, broadcast to Christian television and radio stations, was designed to drum up support for the Catholic Alito, 55, a nominee Democrats have castigated as a far-right jurist bent on dismantling a woman's right to an abortion and other civil liberties.
Santorum framed the debate in terms of religious priorities, and labeled the current Supreme Court as stacked with liberal justices intent on legislating from the bench.
"Our founders here in Philadelphia established a government of the people who would be accountable to the people," stated Santorum, according to a transcript. "The Supreme Court has become the supreme branch of the government, imposing its unrestrained will on all of the people. … The only way to restore this republic is to elevate honorable leaders like Samuel Alito, who want to replace the hubris of this court with humility."
Santorum is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate who's up for re-election this fall.
The event at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church followed demonstrations earlier in the day by a coalition of groups opposed to Alito, who for the past 15 years has served on the bench of the federal appeals court in Philadelphia.
Activists from Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania lined Market Street in an effort to draw attention to a memo Alito authored in 1985 while an attorney in the Reagan White House. Dayle Steinberg, president and CEO of the reproductive-rights organization, said the memo was essentially a "road map to eviscerate Roe v. Wade," the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision affirming a woman's right to an abortion.
Off the Streets and Into the Courtroom
On Monday and Tuesday, however, the debate appeared to settle down with the energies of months of coordinated activism – Bush nominated Alito on Oct. 31 – relegated to the microphones and benches of a Senate hearing room.
Observers said on Tuesday that Alito's performance on both days at the hearing, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), was on the whole predictable. They noted that he said all the right things on abortion – Alito talked of the respect for precedent, known as stare decisis, following questioning by Specter – and appeared polished while delivering his Jan. 9 opening statement.
Samuel Issacharoff, a constitutional-law professor at New York University's law school and a slated witness for the hearing's proceedings on Thursday, said that what was out of the ordinary was a broad focus of Tuesday's questioning on the concept of executive power.
|Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel delivers anti-Alito petitions to Mike Oscar, a member of Sen. Arlen Specter's staff, on Jan. 5|
"Far from the rehearsed drill, a lot of the questions on Tuesday were in the form of questions," said Issacharoff, who is expected to testify on electoral issues. "Roe v. Wade has come to dominate much of the political landscape. For the past 20 years, every nominee knows how to give answers [on that case] tantalizing to both sides, but revealing nothing."
Yet after only a few questions, the professor pointed out, the majority of the Jan. 10 discussion hovered on the "role of courts in policing executive authority."
Issacharoff concluded that such a scenario left the question of Alito's confirmation up in the air.
For Rabbi Lance Sussman, however, an examination of Alito's record on the bench and his writings as a White House lawyer should leave no speculation as to how the judge would rule on the Supreme Court. Faced with a chance to outlaw abortion, the rabbi asserted, Alito would decide in favor of the far-right.
Such a stance, he added, mandates that the Senate vote the jurist down.
"My sense of him is that he is of the school of thought which would seek to weaken Roe v. Wade," said Sussman, the rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, who on Jan. 5 represented the Union of Reform Judaism in a Center City ceremony delivering more than 1 million anti-Alito petitions to Specter's Philadelphia office.
Eleanor Levie, Pennsylvania Public Affairs Chair for the National Council of Jewish Women, agreed with Sussman's assessment. She urged Specter to look past Alito's statements before the Judiciary Committee and examine the man's career. "We see, based on his record, an extreme response to cases including reproductive rights, women's issues, civil rights, views in regard to minorities," said Levie.
Still, the Jewish community is far from unified on Alito's nomination. While the Reform movement is solidly against the judge's candidacy, the Orthodox Union, in a Dec. 27 letter to the Judiciary Committee, endorsed Alito as a jurist in line with "mainstream jurisprudence."
The letter, authored by the O.U.'s Institute for Public Affairs, noted rulings by Alito upholding the rights of Orthodox Jews to observe Shabbat and Muslim police officers to wear beards.
The Conservative movement, on the other hand, has not formulated an opinion on the nomination.
But while activists on all sides view the question of Alito's ascendancy as an extremely serious subject, at least one of the judge's responses on Tuesday actually elicited some humor.
After a question from Specter on the value of a precedent in an abortion case, Alito responded that he "would not get into categorizing precedents as super-precedents or super-duper precedents."
"Did you say super-duper?" followed Specter.
"Right," said Alito, letting his guard down for a second to a background of muffled laughter before continuing with his argument.
But Specter, good-naturedly, didn't let the matter rest, ending the questioning with, "I'm not going to press the point about super-precendent. I'm glad I didn't have to mention super-duper. That, you did."