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Bush nominates Alito to Supreme Court

Conservatives, liberals ready for heated debate

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

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Supreme Court
George W. Bush
Judge Samuel Alito

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Conservatives lauded President Bush on Monday for his choice of Judge Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, while liberals signaled a contentious confirmation hearing is ahead for the nominee.

Alito, a 55-year-old judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is a favorite of conservatives, many of whom objected when Bush nominated White House legal counsel Harriet Miers at the beginning of the month.

After Miers withdrew Thursday, her nomination criticized by both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives eagerly awaited a nominee with judicial experience and credentials similar to Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. (An overview of Alito's judicial record)

Bush touted Alito's 15 years as a federal appellate judge and said, "This record reveals a thoughtful judge who considers the legal merits carefully and applies the law in a principled fashion." (Watch Bush call Alito 'fair-minded and principled' -- 4:15)

"I urge the Senate to act promptly on this important nomination so that an up-or-down vote is held before the end of this year," Bush said.

Soon after his nomination was announced, Alito paid courtesy calls to some of the senators who will decide his confirmation.

During visit to the office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, an aide to the Nevada Democrat said Reid doesn't think hearings will be possible before the Christmas break.

Democratic criticism

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on Alito's confirmation, slammed Bush's decision as pandering to his conservative base. (Reaction)

"This is a needlessly provocative nomination," said Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee. "Instead of uniting the country through his choice, the president has chosen to reward one faction of his party, at the risk of dividing the country."

Leahy's reaction was decidedly different from his comments after the president nominated John Roberts to succeed the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor.

At the time, Leahy and other Democrats withheld criticism of Roberts and promised a thorough review of his record.

Roberts, however, was re-nominated and confirmed as chief justice when William Rehnquist died.

Leahy and other Democrats did say they would not make their final decisions until they learn more about Alito.

Another Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, also panned the president's pick.

"The initial review of Judge Alito's record shows that there's a real chance that he will, like Justice Scalia, choose to make law rather than interpret law and move the court in a direction quite different than it has gone," Schumer said.

If Alito is confirmed, it would leave Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the lone woman on the court.

"This appointment ignores the value of diverse backgrounds and perspectives," Reid said.

Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, who escorted Alito around the Capitol, said he was concerned with the partisan debate but was sure the nominee would get a fair vote.

"It's going to be tough," the Tennessee Republican said.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, praised Alito's record and said the committee would have an abundance of material to review.

"We have a very good idea as to his approach to jurisprudence," Specter said.

Specter said he doesn't think the nomination meets the standard that could allow a filibuster under the terms of an agreement reached by the so-called Gang of 14.

The Senate narrowly avoided a showdown over Bush's appellate court nominees in May when the bipartisan group agreed to limit their support of filibusters to what they termed "extraordinary circumstances."

The Gang of 14 hasn't staked out a position yet but is scheduled to meet Thursday in the office of Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Specter, who supports abortion rights, met for more than an hour with Alito and said afterward that the nominee told him "there is a right to privacy" in the Constitution.

A solid conservative

Legal experts consider Alito a solid conservative.

"The qualifications issue, I don't think will cut against him at all," CNN's senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said. "The big issue will be judicial philosophy. He is very conservative, and the issue that he is most publicly identified with is abortion."

In 1991, in one of his more well-known decisions, Alito was the only dissenting voice in a 3rd Circuit ruling striking down a Pennsylvania law that required women to notify their husbands if they planned to get an abortion. (Notable decisions)

But 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. (Abortion decision could be focus of attention -- 1:42)

As opposed as they were to Miers' nomination, conservative activists were equally pleased with the president's latest choice.

"Harriet Miers was a feminist who had no judicial experience and her strongest qualification was that she's a friend of the president's. Alito has a terribly impressive record as a judge and as a prosecutor," said Phyllis Schlafly, president of the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum.

Abortion-rights activists said they strongly opposed the nomination.

"Judge Alito would undermine basic reproductive rights, and Planned Parenthood will oppose his confirmation," said Karen Pearl, interim president of the organization. "It is outrageous that President Bush would replace a moderate conservative like Justice O'Connor with a conservative hardliner."

'Solemn responsibility'

In remarks to reporters after Bush announced his nomination, Alito said while on the bench he has kept in mind what he called a "solemn responsibility."

"Federal judges have the duty to interpret the Constitution and the laws faithfully and fairly, to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans, and to do these things with care and with restraint, always keeping in mind the limited role that the courts play in our constitutional system," he said.

"I pledge that, if confirmed, I will do everything within my power to fulfill that responsibility." (Samuel Alito accepts with reverence and thanks -- 4:15)

Alito, a Yale law school graduate, was appointed to the appeals court by the first President Bush in 1990 after his service as U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

He also served as assistant to Solicitor General Rex E. Lee from 1981 to 1985, where he argued 12 cases before the Supreme Court. (Biography)

O'Connor said in June when she announced her retirement that she would stay on the court until the Senate confirms her replacement.

CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this story.

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