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Town and gown in the Capitol
Media General News Service


January 12, 2006

WASHINGTON - What was striking about Judge Samuel Alito's opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee was that he never once glanced at notes. The senators all read their three hours of statements. Not he.

In his extemporaneous speech that lasted more than 10 minutes, Alito spoke in perfect sentences with nothing in front of him except a small piece of scratch paper. He never once looked down except to get a drink of water. His eyes remained fixed on the senators behind the long, curved bench.

Like him or not, agree with him or not, Alito has the kind of mind that is able to process immensely complex and controversial material and deliver it without the flutter of an eyelash. He is the envy of every paper-rattling speech reader who ever knee-wobbled his way to a final, heart-felt conclusion.

Chief Justice John Roberts displayed the same effortlessness last year to win confirmation. Alito seldom stumbled or got very flustered, even under fairly punishing questions from Democrats.

He managed to do this without hiding too often behind the shield of legal gobbledygook. Except for a couple of lapses, he was easy to understand. And he seemed to be a feistier personality than Roberts. He does not steer away from controversy - partly because he was a more controversial appellate judge than the chief justice.

Where Roberts came to the committee as the model of balanced judicial moderation with a slightly right-of-center whiff, Alito comes off as a more moderate Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice to whom he has often been compared. His answers did not come close to satisfying liberal senators, such as Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. They feared he would too easily take the side of the president against Congress in cases of war powers and the state against the people in cases of individual rights.

Alito said little that reinforced that point of view, however, and in one instance, he suggested he might be a vote against unbridled presidential power. That was when he said he endorsed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's recent opinion declaring that the Constitution does not give the president a "blank check" in the war on terrorism. O'Connor is the centrist justice he was chosen to replace.

"Our Constitution applies in times of peace and in times of war," Alito said.

Roe v. Wade, the 33-year-old abortion rights ruling, hung over the hearing, especially after Alito said he did not believe in "super duper precedents." Under questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., he said "sometimes there are changes in the real world" that make it necessary for the court to change longstanding precedents, but he did not suggest that was true in the Roe case.

Leahy asked him "why in heaven's name" he had become a member of Concerned Alumni of Princeton University, which favored keeping women and minorities out of the school, and allowed his name to be used in a 1985 fundraiser for it.

Alito, the son of an Italian immigrant, said he "had no recollection" of being a member and "somebody of my background would not have been comfortable with an institution like that."

In 1988, Alito called Judge Robert Bork "one of the most outstanding nominees of this century." He told Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., he had been in the Reagan administration and it was what he felt at the time but now "I don't agree with him (Bork) on a number of issues."

Instead of the usual dry recitation of degrees and triumphs, Alito delivered an essay about the working class, ethnically mixed neighborhood where he grew up in Trenton, N.J., and the contrast with the "difficult intellectual conflict and the cultural war" down the road at Princeton University, where he did his undergraduate studies.

He spoke of the "great intellectual excitement." People were "behaving irresponsibly" on campus in "contrast to the good sense of my own community," he said.

When questions began, Alito explained a little about the tensions he was talking about. During his senior year, he said, the Reserve Officer Training Corps in which he was enrolled was thrown off the Princeton campus. He had to finish up his ROTC studies at Trenton State University, not far from his old neighborhood.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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