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Alito's record shows conservative judge

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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Samuel Alito has been a judge for 15 years and is a former U.S. attorney.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Samuel Alito, President Bush's latest nominee to the Supreme Court, has what many conservatives say is the perfect legal background to become a leader on the Supreme Court bench: he has been a judge, a U.S. attorney, and a top Justice Department official.

Privately, friends and colleagues say the 55-year-old federal judge is a low-key, intense, but friendly man who is devoted to his family.

He has long been mentioned as a potential high court nominee, and compared to Justice Antonin Scalia, who shares his conservative judicial philosophy and Italian-American and Catholic roots. But friends say the two are quite different. (Watch an introduction to Samuel Alito -- 1:47)

"Sam is a judge's judge in a lot of ways," said Lawrence Lustberg, a Newark attorney and longtime friend. "He is modest in his appearance. He is rather shy in his demeanor and soft-spoken. He's the kind of guy who I think will be a more standard judge, not out of the mold of Justice Scalia."

Several legal scholars compare Alito more favorably to Chief Justice John Roberts. Their legal opinions reveal a careful, often cautious approach to the law, devoid of the often provocative, sharp-elbowed rhetoric Scalia and other judges are known for. (View an overview of Alito's key decisions)

Alito and Roberts share a conservative philosophy, but it is not considered a rigid stance. Analysts say they both have exercised strong consensus-building skills that could prove invaluable in a divided Supreme Court that has fractured along unpredictable ideological lines in recent years.

Alito's 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be the major focus of scrutiny over his judicial philosophy. He is viewed as the most conservative member of the Philadelphia-based court. Nominated in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, Alito at the time was U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

Not surprisingly, his most talked-about ruling, a case from early in his judicial career, deals with abortion.

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1991), Alito was the only dissenter in a case that, among other things, threw out a Pennsylvania law that required women seeking abortions to notify their husbands. (Watch Alito's record in key abortion cases -- 1:42)

The ruling was later upheld by the Supreme Court, which partially affirmed the overall right to an abortion.

Alito disagreed with the legal rationale used by the woman he would replace: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In overturning the law, O'Connor established a new legal standard on abortion laws, that they impose no "undue burden" on women seeking the procedure.

"The Pennsylvania legislature could have rationally believed that some married women are initially inclined to obtain an abortion without their husbands' knowledge because of perceived problems -- such as economic constraints, future plans, or the husbands' previously expressed opposition -- that may be obviated by discussion prior to the abortion," wrote Alito. "The Pennsylvania Legislature presumably decided that the law on balance would be beneficial. We have no authority to overrule that legislative judgment even if we deem it 'unwise' or worse."

That respect for so-called "legislative intent" and the belief that judges should practice "judicial restraint" is cheered by many Republicans.

"I don't think there can be any question that Alito's ideology is a conservative one," says friend Lustberg, who has disagreed with Alito on a range of constitutional issues. "I don't think he's the kind of guy, because of his respect for the institution of the judiciary, who would seek to overturn precedent in a radical sort of way. I think he has the creativity and indeed the intelligence that chip away at existing precedents in a way I think some of us will regret over the years."(Watch Lustberg discuss his friends nomination -- 3:42)

In another case from 2000, Alito agreed with other judges who found unconstitutional a New Jersey law banning late-term abortions. The court said states needed to provide exceptions if a woman's health is endangered.

The high court will hear a similar case involving a New Hampshire law next month.

People for the America Way, which opposes Alito's nomination, said, "He has demonstrated hostility toward the principles undergirding a woman's constitutionally protected right to govern her own reproductive choices."

Early reaction from conservative groups was unanimously favorable. "He has all of the qualifications needed: intellect, knowledge and experience in constitutional law, integrity, competence, humility and judicial temperament," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America.

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