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Specter: Alito said he will respect abortion precedents

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

Judicial nominee Samuel Alito's Reagan-era memos have drawn fire from abortion rights' supporters.



Samuel Alito
Supreme Court
Arlen Specter

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito had a private meeting with the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday as he sought to reassure lawmakers that he would respect legal precedent on abortion rights and put his personal views aside.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, told reporters afterward: "I don't think his nomination is in trouble." Confirmation hearings for the 55-year-old federal judge are scheduled to begin January 9.

Senate Republicans and the White House sought to tamp down a growing chorus of criticism over a 20-year-old memo written by Alito, in which he commented on Reagan administration efforts to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling.

Specter's face-to-face with Alito came two days after the 1985 memo was released. In it, Alito, then a government lawyer, urged a gradual weakening of abortion rights rather than a "full-frontal assault" on the 1973 decision legalizing the medical procedure.

"He raised a sharp distinction, as he put it, between his role as an advocate and his (current) role as a judge," Specter said after the meeting. "With respect to his personal views on a woman's right to choose, that is not a matter to be considered in the deliberation on a constitutional issue of a woman's right to choose. The judicial role is entirely different."

Specter said Alito also reiterated his respect for precedent, a principle known as "stare decisis," or "to stand by what is decided" in Latin.

"Judge Alito says that when a matter is embedded in the culture, it's a considerable factor in the application of stare decisis," he said.

Specter said Alito views the Constitution as "a living thing in the sense that it protects rights by setting out principles to be applied in changing circumstances."

Reagan-era memos at issue

Alito's two-decade-old remarks on abortion have become a focal point of criticism by groups opposed to his nomination. He was working as a Justice Department lawyer at a time when the Reagan administration was deciding which position to take in approaching Supreme Court cases on whether to limit abortion access.

In a letter to his boss, Alito wrote, "No one seriously believes that the court is about to overrule Roe v. Wade." But he added that by accepting the cases, "the court may be signaling an inclination to cut back" on abortion rights.

"There may be an opportunity to nudge the court ... to provide greater recognition of the states' interest in protecting the unborn throughout pregnancy," wrote Alito. "I find this approach preferable to a full-frontal assault on Roe v. Wade. ... It makes our position clear, does not tacitly concede Roe's legitimacy, and signals that we regard the question as live and open."

Despite Alito's advice, the White House eventually pursued a strategy of trying to overturn Roe altogether. The high court eventually rejected the effort, and has affirmed the overall right to abortion in subsequent rulings.

Alito's memo was released Wednesday, the same day he submitted a detailed questionnaire from the Judiciary Committee on his professional work.

Democrats were critical of the abortion memo. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he found it "puzzling" Alito had failed to mention the memo in his questionnaire.

White House officials have been forceful in attacking any questions about Alito's record. "It's increasingly apparent that Senator Schumer has no intention of giving Judge Alito's nomination any consideration whatsoever and that he will vote 'no' on Alito like he did for Chief Justice (John) Roberts," said Steve Schmidt, who has been spearheading the Alito nomination for the White House.

Specter said the White House requested his one-on-one meeting with Alito.

Kennedy: Alito expressed 'extreme views'

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, also a committee member, said Alito has much explaining to do for what Kennedy called the judge's "extreme views."

"He needs to make clear that he no longer questions constitutionally established remedies for discrimination and protections for the right to vote, and that he will not come to the court with an agenda to roll back women's rights," said Kennedy in a written statement.

Abortion rights groups also continued their attacks Friday. "In this memo, Judge Alito sets forth a road map first to eviscerate Roe v. Wade, with the hope of eventually overruling the case altogether," said Karen Pearl, interim president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "What this document makes clear is Judge Alito's commitment to gutting women's access to essential reproductive health services."

Specter tried to remain neutral on Alito's explanation for his 1985 remarks, saying, "I am not satisfied, I am not dissatisfied." But he did raise concerns the nomination is becoming politicized along the lines of that of President Bush's previous high court nominee, White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

"I don't want to see Judge Alito prejudiced for half his hearing in the (media)," said Specter. "I just don't want to see that happen. And I'm really still furious about what happened to Harriet Miers. Her nomination wasn't only prejudiced, it was obliterated. Give this nominee (Alito) a chance to be heard. Let him be sworn in and let him be subjected to ... grilling by 18 well-prepared interrogators."

Alito was nominated to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor after Miers, originally nominated to fill the vacancy, withdrew her name following bipartisan criticism over her qualifications.

Alito's nomination has proven more controversial than that of John Roberts, who was successfully confirmed in September as chief justice.

In another undated 1985 letter, Alito, applying for a promotion within the Justice Department, touted his political philosophy: "I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."

The New Jersey-born judge sits on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia.

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