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Specter goes to bat for high court nominee

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sent strong signals Monday that he would use all his clout to help federal appeals court judge Samuel Alito win confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Judge Alito meets Senate Judiciary Committee Chariman Specter on Capitol Hill in Washington
Judge Samuel Alito meets Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter as Specter's press aide Blain Rethmeier, right, ushers reporters into Specter's office.Jason Reed / Reuters
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Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sent strong signals Monday that he would use all his clout to help federal appeals court judge Samuel Alito win confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Time and again Specter used his Monday afternoon press conference to defend President Bush’s nominee to the high court and to justify some of his controversial rulings.

“I think he’ll be an excellent witness,” Specter predicted. Drawing an implicit contrast with ex-nominee Harriet Miers, who withdrew last week after getting a tepid reception from the Senate, Specter said “he’s a real legal scholar beyond any question.”

Specter did not say he'd vote for Alito, but all his other comments were positive.

The Judiciary Committee chairman brushed off Democratic charges that Bush’s nomination of Alito was a sop by a weakened president to appease his social conservative base.

“I do not think that the charge by the Democrats that this is a nomination out of weakness has any validity at all. That spin game is par for the course in this city,” he told reporters.

Assurances to abortion rights supporters
Specter seemed to go out of his way to try to persuade abortion rights supporters, of whom he is one, that Alito is not beyond the pale.

He said Alito’s dissent in a 1991 abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, "does not signify disagreement with Roe v Wade” the 1972 ruling which legalized abortion nationwide. Specter said that nothing in what Alito had written in that case “suggests disagreement with the underlying decision in Roe v. Wade."

Specter called Alito’s dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey “a very narrow ruling, very carefully crafted on the basis of Justice O’Connor’s decisions in previous cases about what would constitute an undue burden for the woman.”

He also seemed to aim to re-assure gun control activists, calling a 1996 dissent by Alito which said Congress didn’t have the power to ban sales of machine guns within states "very, very narrowly tailored.”

He said Alito’s dissent had followed the Supreme Court's 1995 ruling in U.S. v. Lopez which said the federal government had no power under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to ban the carrying of guns near schools.

The chairman said he had met with Alito for an hour and 15 minutes Monday and that the veteran appeals court judge assured him “he believes there is a right to privacy under the liberty clause of the United States Constitution” and “he accepts Griswold v. Connecticut as good law.”

Support for privacy rights
Griswold is the landmark 1965 decision in which the court held that married couples had a fundamental right to privacy which included the right to use contraceptives.

Alito also assured Specter that his view of legal precedent was that “the longer a decision was in effect and the more times it had been affirmed by different courts and different justices appointed by different presidents, it had extra precedential value.”

Taking a very different line than Specter was another Northeastern Republican with a liberal-to-centrist voting record, Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee. “Judge Alito has taken many positions that appear to place him at odds with the protection of key fundamental rights,” Chafee said in a written statement Monday. Chafee stands for re-election next year in a heavily Democratic state.

Specter is a sometimes liberal-to-centrist Republican who favors upholding Roe v. Wade; some conservatives revile him for voting against conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987.

Specter’s voting record has moved unmistakably rightward over the past several years – in 1998, based on his roll-call votes on key issues, the American Conservative Union gave him a rating of 38 out of 100, but last year the ACU rated him a 75.

Specter indicated to reporters that he might not have chosen Alito if he were sitting in the Oval Office. “This may shock you, but if I were president, I would handle things a little differently,” he said wryly.  “But I’m not the president and the job I have to do is make a decision on whether he’s qualified.”

If Specter follows through on his initial signs of strong support for Alito, he’d be doing Bush a large favor. Last year Bush helped Specter fend off a primary challenge from conservative Republican Pat Toomey.

Battle with conservatives
Specter’s initial signals of support for a conservative judicial nominee calls to mind the worries that those on the Right had last November after Specter won re-election to a fifth term.

GOP conservatives tried to block Specter from getting the Judiciary Committee chairmanship, which was due him by seniority rules.

“There is nothing Arlen Specter could say that we would trust,” griped Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, a conservative advocacy group, last November.

“Sen. Specter needs to satisfy not just us, but all the people who voted for the president on Nov. 2, that he is going to facilitate, and not thwart the president’s judicial nominees,” Judiciary Committee member Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, warned last November. “This is not just about me, and not just about Sen. Specter. This is about 59 million people who voted to support the president and the people who unseated Tom Daschle.”

Specter had alarmed conservatives by saying right after Bush’s re-election that “when you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely. The president is well aware of what happened, when a number of his nominees were sent up, with the filibuster.”

But Specter on Monday said he did not think a filibuster would be warranted in Alito’s case. And as in the cases of Bush's conservative appeals court nominees such as Janice Rogers Brown, whom Specter helped shepherd to Senate approval last May, the senior senator from Pennsylvania appears to be giving the Right no cause for complaint.