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No Rush on Nominee, Senate Democrats Say

Times Staff Writer

With the political composition of the Supreme Court possibly hanging in the balance, Senate Democrats urged their Republican colleagues Wednesday not to rush the Supreme Court nomination process for federal appellate Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.

President Bush and his aides are pressing for the Senate to vote on Alito before Christmas, but Democrats said that would be hasty.

“I don’t think it’s realistic or even advisable to finish this before Christmas,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

“I don’t know how you would do a fair and an honest hearing by the end of the year,” said the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. “We do have 3,500 opinions he’s written. We have thousands of pages in the archives at the Reagan Library.”

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Democrats want as much time as possible to uncover any potential problems from Alito’s 15 years of opinions on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans, especially in the White House, would like the nomination to reach the Senate floor as soon as possible to forestall controversies.

Neither side, however, is keen to give up holiday time to the process, although they avoid saying so in public.

Many senators have also made plans to travel overseas in congressional delegations next month -- trips they would prefer not to skip.

In a sign of White House time pressure, Alito plans to spend all of this week and next week meeting with as many senators as possible. To accommodate senators’ schedules, Alito planned to station himself in a room near the chamber today so senators with just a few minutes between votes could meet with him.

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“The White House would very much like to finish before Christmas,” said Alito’s liaison with the Senate, former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). “The court sits on Jan. 9, and to have that ninth justice in place as the court deliberates on new cases is important.”

Durbin, Leahy and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) met with Alito on Wednesday as he raced through half a dozen courtesy calls. All complimented the nominee afterward.

“He assured me that he wants to go to the bench without a political agenda, that he is not bringing a hammer and chisel to hammer away and chisel away on existing law,” Nelson said.

Durbin said he came away from their conversation convinced that the nominee recognized a constitutional right to privacy -- a principle that liberals believe forms the foundation of the Roe vs. Wade decision that established a right to abortion.

“He satisfied me that he recognized this to be one of the un-enumerated rights of the Constitution, and he led me to believe that he felt that it was an established right,” Durbin said.

Both Leahy and Durbin said, however, that a crucial factor in their decision whether to support Alito’s nomination was the fact that he would succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, often the court’s swing vote.

“This is the third nominee now in the past several months for that seat. It is critically important,” Leahy said. “If somebody comes in there with an agenda as an activist judge -- as some of his supporters have suggested he will be -- then they shouldn’t be there.”

Democrats said it was too soon for them to decide whether to oppose Alito, who has a reputation as a strong conservative who favors restrictions on abortion.

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And they said they had not begun to consider whether they would resort to a filibuster to block the nomination.

“I’m not hearing any of my colleagues talk about it, and I’d rather not hear any of my colleagues on the other side talk about it,” Nelson said.

O’Connor announced her retirement from the Supreme Court in July, saying she wanted to spend more time caring for her ailing husband in Arizona. She agreed to stay on the court until a successor could be named.

“It’s important to look at how nominations have been handled in the past,” said Steve Schmidt, a White House spokesman. "[Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg took 45 days. There’s no reason why this process can’t be completed by the end of the year.”

If her seat is not filled by January, O’Connor could play a key role in several pending cases. In early October, the justices heard arguments in an Oregon case that will decide whether states may permit doctors to give a lethal dose of medication to a terminally ill person who requests it. The Bush administration says that state law violates the federal drug control laws.

It is expected that O’Connor might cast the deciding vote in favor of Oregon if the opinion is ready for release by January.

If it is not ready, however, her successor could be the deciding vote.

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Staff writer David Savage contributed to this report.


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