Old Job Form, New Questions
Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., once seeking to advance his career as a Reagan White House lawyer, described himself as a dedicated conservative and said he was “particularly proud” of his attempts to end racial and ethnic quotas and establish that the Constitution did not give women a right to abortion.
In a 1985 application for a high-level political appointment in the Department of Justice, Alito portrayed himself as strictly conservative and strongly partisan. That contrasts with the picture of Alito that has emerged from his 15 years as a federal appeals court judge, where he has come across in legal opinions and in descriptions by colleagues and friends as lacking a clear ideology but devoted to faithfully interpreting the law.
The statement of Alito’s political views, though two decades old, reenergized liberal activists and gave Senate Democrats a new reason to challenge the nomination, which had been gaining momentum.
It raised questions as to whether Alito still held those beliefs or whether he had perhaps embellished his views to promote himself in Republican circles. Neither explanation was likely to work in his favor with some moderates or liberals.
Senators said Alito’s statement ensured that he would be questioned pointedly on those issues when his confirmation hearings begin Jan. 9.
“I think that it is more reason to question him closely at the hearing,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), citing specifically Alito’s statement that the Constitution “does not protect a right to an abortion.”
“A lot of people have shifted their views,” Specter said. “People do shift, so there may be an evolution of his thinking.”
Alito’s comments were first reported Monday by the Washington Times. His job application was among some 160 pages of material from Alito’s government career that were released later in the day by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley.
At the time of his job application, Alito had been working for four years in the solicitor general’s office, mostly handling appellate matters.
But with his eye on the job as deputy assistant attorney general, Alito proclaimed his “philosophical commitment to the policies” of the Reagan administration.
“I am and always have been a conservative and an adherent to the same philosophical views that I believe are central to this administration,” Alito began.
He took aim at liberal rulings of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1960s, and recalled being heavily influenced by conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and by the 1964 presidential campaign of conservative icon Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
While saying it was “obviously very difficult” to summarize a set of political views, Alito wrote:
“I believe very strongly in limited government, federalism, free enterprise, the supremacy of the elected branches of government, the need for a strong defense and effective law enforcement, and the legitimacy of a government role in protecting traditional values.”
In the field of law, he said, “I disagree strenuously with the usurpation by the judiciary of decision-making authority that should be exercised by the branches of government responsible to the electorate.”
Alito said he had found it “an honor and source of personal satisfaction” to work for President Reagan and “to help to advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly. I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”
Finally, Alito said he was a “lifelong registered Republican and [had] made the sort of modest political contributions that a federal employee can afford to Republican candidates and conservative causes.” He listed the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Conservative Political Action Committee, as well as national GOP officeholders from his home state of New Jersey.
His comments were characterized by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), an influential member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as “extreme statements” that were “deeply troubling.” Kennedy also accused Alito of “clearly trying to pass a litmus test to get a promotion in an administration that stood against the march of progress in this country.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, another Democratic panel member, said Alito “should expect tough questioning from the committee about whether his views have changed and whether he would advance a particular ideological position that is contrary to decades of legal precedent.”
Schumer added: “Past nominees have said they could not discuss these issues for fear of creating a perception of bias. Here, unfortunately, the memo itself creates the perception of bias, and it will be crucial for this nominee to address the issue head-on.”
But Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican committee member, said the question was whether Alito would set apart his own views and “base his rulings on what the Constitution says.”
“His long track record as a federal appeals court judge shows that he has indeed put his personal views on abortion aside, and I have every confidence he will continue to do so if he is confirmed to United States Supreme Court.”
Alito was applying for a job as the top deputy in the Justice Department office that provides legal advice to the attorney general and to the White House.
“I had recruited him to be my deputy,” said Charles J. Cooper, a well-known Washington lawyer who headed the Office of Legal Counsel during the Reagan administration.
“Sam had impressed me as an extraordinarily gifted lawyer,” Cooper said. “He was careful and rigorous. He didn’t come across as an open and obvious conservative activist, like me, for example.”
But the job application was a means of telling the Reagan White House that he shared their political aims, Cooper said.
“I think this is much ado about very little. How could someone be shocked that a young lawyer interested in a political position in the Reagan administration was a conservative?” Cooper asked.
Alito’s statement that the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion will likely get the most attention in his Senate hearings.
Alito served in the solicitor general’s office when the Reagan administration urged the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade. However, his record as a judge is more equivocal.
In 1991, he voted to uphold a series of antiabortion restrictions passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature, including a rule that generally required married women to notify their husbands before having an abortion. The high court later voided that regulation.
But in three other abortion-related cases, Alito voted against the wishes of antiabortion advocates. In one ruling, he cast the deciding vote in a Medicaid case that made it easier for poor women to obtain free abortions if they were victims of rape or incest.
Alito’s comments about the Warren court are also likely to get the attention of Senate Democrats.
As a college student, Alito said, he developed an interest in constitutional law, “motivated in large part by disagreement with the Warren court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the establishment clause and reapportionment.”
The Miranda decision limiting police questioning caused lasting controversy, as did the earlier rulings banning school-sponsored prayers. But the furor over reapportionment had faded by the 1970s.
In the 1960s, the Warren court adopted one-person, one-vote and said electoral districts in states and in cities had to be roughly equal in size. Before that, thinly populated rural areas had as much or more clout than cities in some states.