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US Supreme Court Nominee Faces Questions on Abortion, Other Issues

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito is facing tough questions about presidential powers and abortion rights during Senate confirmation hearings.

A key issue in the hearings are statements Judge Samuel Alito made while working as a lawyer in the Reagan administration in support of executive power. Some critics argue Alito embraced greater powers for the president at the expense of civil liberties.

Alito responded that the president has to follow the Constitution and the nation's laws.

"No person in this country is above the law, and that includes the president," he said.

But Alito refrained from discussing particular cases, saying he did not want to prejudge matters that may come before the high court.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is a supporter of abortion rights, asked Alito about statements he made as a lawyer in the Reagan administration opposing abortion.

Alito said the Constitution protects the right to privacy, a key underpinning of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

He also expressed support for the legal principle, known as starre decisis, that prior court decisions should be used as guiding principle.

"I agree that in every case in which there is prior precedent, the first issue is the issue of starre decisis," noted Mr. Alito. "The presumption is that the court will follow its prior precedence. There needs to be a special justification for overruling a prior precedent."

The committee has scheduled two days of questioning. The nominee is expected to be confirmed by the Republican-led Senate by the end of the month.

He would succeed the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has often cast the deciding vote in 5-4 rulings on controversial cases. Many Democrats are concerned that Alito could tilt the ideological balance of the court to the right.