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Alito Could Shift Balance on US Supreme Court

This week's Senate confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court could have far-reaching implications for law and politics in the United States.

The Senate vote confirming Samuel Alito was largely along party lines and came after contentious hearings during which the nominee was questioned by Democrats on a range of issues including, abortion, civil rights and the power of the president.

"The judge's only obligation, and it is a solemn obligation, is to the rule of law," Justice Alito said. "And what that means is that in every single case, the judge has to do what the law requires."

Liberal Democrats in particular waged a fierce battle against the Alito nomination, arguing that President Bush was replacing the court's leading moderate, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, with a committed conservative jurist. Justice O'Connor was the first woman on the high court and announced her intention to retire last year.

"A chill wind blows. A chill wind, which will snuff out the dying light of Sandra Day O'Connor's Supreme Court legacy," said Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois,

Many legal experts predict that replacing Justice O'Connor with Justice Alito will shift the nine-member Supreme Court in a more conservative direction.

"Abortion regulation, relations between religion and government, questions of capital punishment, affirmative action would be another," said A.E. Dick Howard, an expert on the Supreme Court and constitutional law at the University of Virginia. "There are several different areas in which the court was divided and in which [Justice Sandra Day] O'Connor's vote was often the fifth and critical vote."

Conservatives are thrilled with Justice Alito's ascendancy to the Supreme Court. They see his appointment combined with the president's earlier choice of Chief Justice John Roberts as fulfillment of Mr. Bush's campaign promise to appoint conservative judges.

Charles Cooper is a former colleague of Samuel Alito when they both worked in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. He says the Senate confirmation hearings helped to build public support for the Alito nomination.

"[They] embraced Sam Alito as a fair-minded, open, honest man of enormous integrity. A man without a biased bone in his body," he said.

Legal experts caution, however, that Supreme Court justices are not always predictable.

For example, in his first case on the high court, Justice Alito sided with the court's more liberal faction to block the execution of a convicted murderer in Missouri.

But many analysts believe the Alito and Roberts appointments represent the continuation of a gradual shift away from the more liberal image of the Supreme Court that stemmed from rulings in the 1960s and 1970s.

"That the hope of a conservative working majority on the court will be more nearly fulfilled," said University of Virginia expert A.E. Dick Howard. "If they bring that about, if that in fact happens across the court's docket [cases], that will be an historic shift from where the court was a generation ago."

The role that Sandra O'Connor had as the court's leading centrist voice is likely now to be filled by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justice Kennedy was appointed by President Reagan and although he has a generally conservative voting record, he has agreed with the court's more liberal faction on some cases involving gay rights, abortion and the death penalty.