WASHINGTON — President Bush nominated veteran judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court Monday, seeking to shift the judiciary to the right and mollify conservatives who derailed his previous pick. Ready-to-rumble Democrats said Alito may curb abortion rights and be “too radical for the American people.”
Drawing an unspoken contrast to failed nominee Harriet Miers, Bush declared that the appeals court judge “has more prior judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in more than 70 years.”
Abortion emerged as a potential fault line. Democrats pointed to Alito’s rulings that sought to restrict a woman’s right to abortion. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican who supports abortion rights, said that Alito’s views on the hot-button issue “will be among one of the first items Judge Alito and I will discuss.”
However, Specter indicated Monday afternoon that he would back Alito’s nomination.
Alito’s mother shed some light. “Of course, he’s against abortion,” 90-year-old Rose Alito said of her son, a Catholic.
On gun rights, Alito in 1996 was the only appeals judge to vote against upholding Congress’ authority to ban fully automatic machine guns. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence sarcastically described “Machine Gun Sammy” as a “perfect Halloween pick.”
Alito had argued for greater state rights in reasoning that Congress had no authority to regulate private gun possession.
Alito, 55, newly installed Chief Justice John Roberts, 50, and the more than 200 other federal judges Bush has pushed through the Senate could give the Republican president a legacy far beyond his two terms.
In a political twist, Republicans who helped sink Miers’ nomination rallied to Alito’s side. A leading Democrat who backed Miers led the attack against Alito.
“The Senate needs to find out if the man replacing Miers is too radical for the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. A rare Democratic senator who opposes abortion, Reid chided Bush for not nominating the first Hispanic to the court.
“President Bush would leave the Supreme Court looking less like America and more like an old boys club,” Reid said.
So consistently conservative, Alito has been dubbed “Scalito” or “Scalia-lite” by some lawyers because his judicial philosophy invites comparisons to conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But while Scalia is outspoken and is known to badger lawyers, Alito is polite, reserved and even-tempered.
If Alito got all 55 Republicans in the Senate to vote for him, Democrats would have to resort to a filibuster to block Alito’s confirmation, a tactic that comes with political risks. The GOP controls 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate.
Alito also enjoys the early support of conservative activists who used their sway in the Bush White House to derail Miers’ nomination.
A political recovery plan
The fight to nominate Alito, a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 1990, is one step in Bush’s political recovery plan as he tries to regain his footing after a cascade of troubles — including the Iraq war and the indictment of the vice president’s chief of staff — rocked his presidency.
This political strategy has been criticized by some, NBC’s David Gregory reported Monday.
“It's a pity that the president felt his position was so weak he had to bend to a narrow but strident faction of his political base,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Bush still has numerous obstacles to overcome as questions swarm surrounding the role of his senior adviser, Karl Rove, in revealing covert CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity.
According to NBC News, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan was asked two years ago about Rove and Libby’s involvement in the CIA leak.
“That's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved,” McClellan said at the time.
McClellan refused to comment on the case on Monday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Alito would replace retiring justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a decisive swing vote in cases involving affirmative action, abortion, campaign finance, discrimination and the death penalty.
“The Supreme Court is an institution I have long held in reverence,” said the bespectacled Alito, a former prosecutor and government attorney who has argued 12 cases before the Supreme Court, losing just two. “During my 29 years as a public servant, I’ve had an opportunity to view the Supreme Court from a variety of perspectives.”
Miers had never been a judge.
Praised by Democrats when confirmed for a Philadelphia-based appeals court 15 years ago, Alito has staked out positions supporting restrictions on abortion, such as parental and spousal notification.
More restrictive on abortion than O’Connor
The jurist from New Jersey favors more restrictions on abortion rights than either the Supreme Court has allowed or O’Connor has supported, based on a 1992 case in which he supported spousal notification.
Bush called for confirmation by year’s end, but Senate leaders said the vote may wait until next year.
Wasting no time, Alito went to the Capitol shortly after the announcement to meet with lawmakers. Accompanied by two of his children and Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, Alito paused first to pay his respects at the coffin of the late civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in the Capitol rotunda.
Specter said he would not ask Alito directly about whether he would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights ruling.
“There is a lot more to do with a woman’s right to choose than how you feel about it personally,” he said. Specter cited adherence to legal precedent in view of a series of rulings over 30 years upholding abortion rights.
With no sign of irony, Republicans demanded that Alito get a vote in the Senate — something they denied Miers.
“Let’s give Judge Alito a fair up or down vote, not left or right,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.
Upheld promise to conservatives
Republicans who frowned upon Miers said Alito’s selection was in keeping with Bush’s promise to conservatives who helped elect him twice. “What I’ve been hoping for is we would get nominees with a paper trail so we can know their views,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a potential presidential candidate courting conservative voters.
Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson called the pick “a grand-slam home run.” Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who joined allies on the right to challenge Miers nomination, said, “Now with Judge Alito the battle is where it belongs; it’s a battle against the president’s avowed political enemies.”
Alito, who was nominated to the appeals court by Bush’s father, signaled his alliance with Bauer and other conservatives by speaking of the “limited role the courts play in our constitutional system.”
Abortion-rights activists denounced the pick. “Now, the gauntlet has been, I think, thrown down,” said Kate Michelman, past president of NARAL-Pro-Choice American.
“I believe this nomination is aimed at appeasing the most right-wing elements of the president’s political base,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Alito considered alongside Miers
Miers bowed out last Thursday after three weeks of bruising criticism from members of Bush’s own party who argued that the Texas lawyer and loyal Bush confidant had thin credentials and no proven record as a judicial conservative.
Bush had a lengthy interview with Alito after O’Connor announced her retirement in July. White House officials said he was Bush’s favorite among the candidates who were judges, but loyalist Miers won out.
Bush called Alito on Friday. White House chief of staff Andy Card talked on the phone with Alito two or three times on Thursday and Friday. Bush formally offered Alito the job when the two met in the Oval Office at 7 a.m. ET Monday, nearly an hour after the news of his choice leaked out.
The White House immediately reached out to its conservative network to prepare for a fight with Democrats. Steve Schmidt, who was the White House spokesman on the Roberts nomination, told supporters on a conference call that they are already considering themselves 22 votes down in the Senate — the 22 Democrats who voted against Roberts.
In the early 1990s, Alito was the lone dissenter in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a case in which the 3rd Circuit struck down a Pennsylvania law that included a provision requiring women seeking abortions to notify their spouses.
NBC News' David Gregory and the Associated Press contributed to this report.