updated 11/10/2005 9:05:40 PM ET 2005-11-11T02:05:40

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito said Thursday he was “unduly restrictive” in promising in 1990 to avoid appeals cases involving two investment firms and said he has not made any rulings in which he had a “legal or ethical obligation” to step aside.

In a letter to Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Alito said a 1990 questionnaire he filled out covered his plans for “initial service” as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I respectfully submit that it was not inconsistent with my questionnaire response for me to participate in two isolated cases seven and 13 years later, respectively,” he wrote.

Alito issued the letter one day after all eight Democrats on the committee called for voluminous records involving a 2002 case in which Vanguard was a defendant. They noted that Alito had promised at the time of his confirmation to the appeals court to avoid cases involving Vanguard, Smith Barney, a savings bank and his sister’s law firm.

Democrats did not accuse Alito of bending his ruling to favor Vanguard. Instead, they raised possible conflict of interest concerns, and said he had violated the promise he made to the committee 15 years ago.

A letter from Specter
The Democratic challenge prompted a letter from Specter, R-Pa., in which he wrote Alito suggesting a quick response. “I think it is important that the issues be addressed promptly since a number of senators have expressed concerns,” Specter advised.

Alito has been nominated to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whose judicial rulings have made her the swing vote on the Supreme Court on issues such as abortion and affirmative action. The 55-year-old New Jersey native has won strong support from Senate Republicans, and elicited praise from several Democratic senators with whom he has met privately.

Confirmation hearings are scheduled for Jan. 9, and Wednesday’s letter from Democrats on the panel marked their first organized challenge to his nomination.

Fateful anniversary looms
Specter has said he hopes for a final vote by the full Senate on Jan. 20. That would come two days before the anniversary of the 1973 ruling that established abortion rights — Roe v. Wade — the decision many conservatives hope Alito will overturn if confirmed for the seat held by O’Connor.

O’Connor’s vote has been pivotal on the court on abortion, affirmative action and other issues, and partisans on both ends of the political spectrum say that elevates the importance of Alito’s nomination.

Alito reported holdings of about $80,000 in Vanguard funds when he was confirmed in 1990 to the appeals court seat, and news articles around the time of the disputed case placed his investment at $390,000 or above.

Exonerating letters
Steven Schmidt, an administration spokesman, pointed to letters by two law professors who wrote Specter earlier this month, saying Alito had handled the 2002 case properly.

At the same time, the Republican National Committee circulated material criticizing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for challenging Alito’s behavior in the 2002 case — then praised the Massachusetts Democrat for defending Justice Stephen Breyer against conflict-of-interest allegations at his 1994 confirmation hearings.

Kennedy wrote Alito on Tuesday, posing a series of questions about the case and noting his 1990 pledge to the Judiciary Committee.

The letter by the committee’s eight Democrats, addressed to Anthony J. Scirica, chief judge of the 3rd U.S. circuit court of appeals, escalated the issue.

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