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Contentious Hearings Expected for US Supreme Court Nominee


In Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Monday into the nomination of Appeals Court Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. VOA's Deborah Tate has a preview of what are expected to be contentious confirmation proceedings.

Republicans and Democrats alike on the Judiciary Committee agree that Judge Alito likely will face more intense questioning than Chief Justice John Roberts did during his confirmation hearings last year.

"There is more at stake in this nomination," said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, in a conference call to reporters. He notes that the politically conservative Chief Justice Roberts replaced another conservative, Chief Justice Rehnquist. But Judge Alito, another conservative, if confirmed, would succeed the more centrist Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Justice O'Connor has often cast the deciding vote in 5-4 rulings on the deeply divided court, sometimes siding with the more liberal justices, and other times voting with the more conservative members of the bench.

So Judge Alito's presence on the bench could shift the balance of the court. That has Senate Democrats worried, and they are vowing to question the nominee aggressively.

Democrats have expressed concern about Judge Alito's record on a number of issues, but particularly about documents he helped draft as a lawyer in the Reagan administration that suggest support for a powerful executive branch of government.

In one case, for example, he argued that the attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement official, deserves immunity from prosecution when acting in the name of national security, even if those actions involve the illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens.

Some lawmakers predict the issue could dominate the hearings, which come in the wake of revelations that President Bush authorized a secret National Security Agency program to bypass courts and eavesdrop on the overseas phone calls of U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorists.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, spoke to reporters in a conference call.

"There is no question that the question of executive powers in time of war in the context of the terrorist threat will be central to the Alito hearing," he said. "I would not be surprised if it were one of the most important topics."

Some Democrats are already questioning Judge Alito's commitment to protecting civil liberties by checking executive power.

"We have to ask ourselves, is there any limit, any limit on executive authority and power that this nominee will recognize, in terms of the limits of constitutional authority," asked Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

The balance between executive power and civil liberties is also a concern to many Republicans. The Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, says he will question Judge Alito about the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program. The Senator plans to hold hearings about the program in coming weeks.

Other issues expected to be raised at Judge Alito's hearings include the nominee's record on civil rights and abortion.

Democrats are concerned about Judge Alito's conservative approach to voting rights and affirmative action. They also fear he would try to undermine abortion rights in the United States, citing a 1985 memorandum he wrote in which he expressed his opposition to the 1975 Supreme Court ruling known as Roe v. Wade, which legalized the procedure.

Senator Specter, a supporter of abortion rights, says Judge Alito sought to assure him that his personal views on abortion would not affect his judicial decisions.

"With respect to his personal views on a woman's right to choose, he says that is not a matter to be considered in the deliberation on a constitutional issue of a woman's right to choose, that a judicial role is entirely different," he said.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, is urging Judge Alito to fully explain his views on abortion and other contentious issues, and issued a warning if he does not.

"If Judge Alito refuses to answer these questions, I believe it will be extremely difficult to vote for him," he said. "Indeed, I believe, it could jeopardize his nomination."

But Judge Alito's supports believe he will be confirmed by the end of the month and are dismissing critics who argue the nominee's views are too extreme.

"The fact is that Judge Alito's record demonstrates that he is solidly within the judicial mainstream of this country," said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

Supporters say Judge Alito is well-qualified to serve on the high court, and note that the nominee received the American Bar Association's top rating.