Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Thursday called for judicial restraint, saying courts are not "the center of the universe" when it comes to legal questions.
"Life-tenured, appointed judges must exercise restraint in construing" the constitution, Alito told a meeting of the Federalist Society in a hotel ballroom packed with prominent conservatives.
Alito joined the court earlier this year, helped by society members who mounted an aggressive campaign to build support for his confirmation in the Senate.
The newest justice proudly called himself a 20-year member of the group and embraced its ideal of limited government.
He said the executive and legislative branches of government should play an active role in determining the constitutionality of proposed laws and enforcement actions and not leave that function solely to the judiciary.
"It is wrong to think that the courts are the center of the universe when it comes to all legal questions," Alito said.
He spoke after the group marked Justice Antonin Scalia's 20th anniversary on the court. Alito jokingly complained that after Scalia's 98-0 confirmation in 1986, he expected all Italian-American jurists from New Jersey to have an equally smooth path to the court.
"It didn't quite turn out that way, but what's 40 votes?" Alito asked, recalling opposition to his nomination from liberal groups and some Democratic senators.
Alito was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 58-42 earlier this year.
Key Federalist case pending
Alito and a half dozen other federal judges nominated by President Bush are taking part in the Federalist Society's annual convention, a measure of the conservative organization's influence in the nation's legal system.
Solicitor General Paul Clement, the Bush administration's lawyer at the Supreme Court, kicked off the meeting Thursday morning with the prediction that with two new Bush-appointed conservative justices, the high court will have ample opportunity in coming years to spell out its views on limited government, a Federalist Society hallmark.
Clement said an early test for the court would be the upcoming case in which 12 states, three cities and environmental groups are trying to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to recognize carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from cars as harmful pollutants that should be regulated.
Clement said he will be defending the government's "discretion not to regulate" in this area. The administration has been strongly criticized by environmentalists and others for its lack of action to address global warming.
The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies was founded in 1982 as a debating society by students who believed professors at the top law schools were too liberal. It now claims 35,000 members, including prominent members of the Bush administration, the federal judiciary and Congress.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff are scheduled to address the convention Friday.