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War of words

Politics | The battle lines are blurry as activists target swing senators over Alito

Issue: "Narnia unleashed," Dec. 10, 2005

When a certain batch of senators flew to their home states for Thanksgiving, the Committee for Justice (CFJ) was there, waiting. Throughout the holiday week, CFJ, an advocacy group that supports the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito, ran pro-Alito television and radio ads in Montana, Colorado, West Virginia, Nebraska, Arkansas, and the Dakotas-all Bush-supporting red states represented by at least one Democratic senator, each one a potential Alito swing vote.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, a grassroots coalition of activists who oppose Mr. Alito-but support gay rights, unionism, and abortion-targeted Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Like his Democratic colleagues in Bush country, the pro-abortion lawmaker is considered a pivotal Alito vote. He's also a Republican up for reelection next year in a heavily Democratic state, a fact anti-Alito activists know may cause him to pivot left.

So goes the modern judicial-confirmation battle, a once-stately process that now has all the smoke and thunder of a political campaign.

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"I think that's regrettable," said CFJ executive director Sean Rushton. "But it wasn't the right that created this politicized confirmation environment. We're not interested in politicizing this . . . but we have to because the left insists on distorting [Judge Alito's] record."

Liberal Democrats, including Senate Judiciary Committee member Joseph Biden, are insisting that the "filibuster option" is back on the table, after statements Mr. Alito made in 1985 came to light. When applying for the position of deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department, Mr. Alito wrote that he "personally believes very strongly that . . . the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion."

He also wrote that the 1960s-era Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren exceeded its authority when it ordered "reapportionment," or the reorganizing of states' electoral districts, to gain greater voter representation for minority-populated urban areas. While Mr. Alito's views reflected a break with the Warren Court over limits on judicial authority and not on voting rights, some Senate Democrats have inflamed minority voters by suggesting forebodingly that the judge doesn't support the principle of "one man, one vote."

The Senate in 1990 thought well enough of Mr. Alito to unanimously confirm him to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Still, groups such as the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way (PFAW) are trying to transmogrify Mr. Alito from a respected jurist into an enemy of civil rights.

"From the minute President Bush nominated Judge Samuel Alito for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, it was clear that he was a favorite of the radical right," reads the PFAW website. "His record of right-wing judicial activism and hostility to fundamental rights and liberties were already well documented."

CFJ's website carries a 27-page report that counters that claim. And the group's Thanksgiving spots struck back at PFAW and allied groups for their broader agendas: "They want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance and are fighting school choice," the voiceover goes. "They support . . . partial-birth abortion. They are trying to redefine traditional marriage and promote voting rights for convicted felons. . . . Do these groups represent you?"

While the word wars rage on, Mr. Alito and a team of Justice Department lawyers continue prepping for his confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin in January. While recently confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts served less than two years as a federal judge, Mr. Alito has a 15-year paper trail, literally tens of thousands of pages that must be sifted and reviewed.

"Any question that a [judiciary committee] senator might raise, Judge Alito has to know the law and the issue," said Heritage Foundation legal studies director Todd Gaziano.

While both sides put a microscope to his past rulings, the judge will participate in "murder boards," mock confirmation hearings where lawyers play the role of judiciary committee members, grilling the judge, interrupting him, yelling at him if he refuses to answer-then, in debriefing, chastising him if he caves in. Mr. Roberts survived a dozen murder boards; with committee Democrats loaded for bear on abortion and voting rights, Mr. Alito may need to soldier through even more.

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