Politics and the law intersect in Washington this week as the Senate holds confirmation hearings for President Bush's choice for the Supreme Court, federal appeals court Judge Samuel Alito. The president and both major political parties have a lot at stake in the Alito nomination.
Supreme Court appointments are for life and they often shape the historical legacies of the presidents who make them.
It is up to the Senate to confirm Supreme Court nominees after public hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As the committee opened hearings on Judge Alito, President Bush urged his confirmation at the White House.
"He has got the judicial temperament to make sure that the court is a body that interprets the law, and does not try to write the law," said Mr. Bush.
Judge Alito has served on the federal bench for 15 years and his lengthy record of rulings and statements will be examined closely during the hearings.
Conservatives are excited by his nomination, seeing it as the fulfillment of a campaign promise made by Mr. Bush to appoint conservative jurists to the high court.
Most opposition Democrats say they will make a decision after the confirmation hearings. But many liberals are alarmed by some of his past rulings and statements on abortion, civil rights, and executive power.
When he was nominated by President Bush, Judge Alito said he was committed to interpreting the law without political influence.
"Our dedication, as a free and open society, to liberty and opportunity and, as it says above the entrance to the Supreme Court, equal justice under law," said Mr. Alito.
Democrats vow to carefully question Judge Alito about his views on civil rights, abortion and balance of power issues involving the courts, the president and the Congress.
Patrick Leahy is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The challenge for Judge Alito in the course of these hearings is to demonstrate that he is going to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans, and in doing that, serve as an effective check on government overreaching," said Mr. Leahy.
If confirmed, Judge Alito would be President Bush's second appointment to the Supreme Court and could help shift the court in a more conservative direction.
Conservatives were pleased with the president's first appointment, Chief Justice John Roberts, who won the votes of half of the Senate Democrats when he was confirmed last year.
Some political analysts predict it will be difficult for Judge Alito to win that many Democratic votes, though most experts still expect that he will be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato says any vacancy on the closely divided Supreme Court is bound to spark an intense political battle over confirmation.
"In modern times, each of these nine positions on the Supreme Court has become enormously important. Many of the decisions of the court are five to four, so every new appointment really matters," he noted.
The Alito nomination is particularly significant because he would replace the court's leading moderate voice, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Justice O'Connor has often cast the deciding vote in controversial cases that were settled in five to four decisions by the nine-member court. Justice O'Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court when she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Mary Cheh is a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"And Justice O'Connor, although she was appointed by President Reagan, a Republican and conservative, has supported a woman's right to an abortion, she supported affirmative action, in some cases she had been questioning the death penalty, she has tried to draw a line about the mixing of religion in governmental activities, and in all these areas, Judge Alito goes in the opposite direction," she explained.
The Alito nomination has also sparked an intense battle among interest groups both in favor and opposed to his appointment. Groups across the political spectrum are running television, radio and newspaper advertisements seeking to influence the Senate confirmation process.