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Alito: Only obligation is 'the rule of law'

Senators vow tough questions on abortion, executive power

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Samuel Alito meets with Sens. Orrin Hatch, left, Arlen Specter, second from left, and Patrick Leahy, right.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito said his 15-year record as a federal judge has shown he respects the rule of law, as the Senate Judiciary Committee began what could be contentious confirmation hearings.

"No person in this country, no matter how high or powerful, is above the law, and no person in this country is beneath the law," Alito told the committee just before it adjourned for the day.

Senators promised to sharply question the 55-year-old appeals court judge about his views on abortion and executive power. Other issues likely to be discussed include Alito's rulings on police searches; gender and job discrimination and gun control.

The first day of televised hearings was devoted to opening statements by Alito and all 18 members of the Judiciary Committee. At least two days of questioning will begin Tuesday morning.

In an 11-minute opening statement, Alito tried to differentiate his role in the 1980s as a government lawyer, in which he was an advocate for the Reagan White House, and his current job on the bench.

"The role of a practicing attorney is to achieve a desirable result for the client in the particular case at hand. But a judge can't think that way. A judge can't have any agenda," he said. "The judge's only obligation, and it's a solemn obligation, is to the rule of law."

Alito also appeared to subtly deflect criticism he would be a rigid conservative on issues such as abortion.

"Good judges are open to changing their minds" based on the facts presented to them or from comments of their colleagues, he said.

But he gave no specific indication how he would respond to questions from lawmakers.

Focus on abortion

Alito was formally introduced to the panel by two politicians from his home state of New Jersey: Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, and Christie Whitman, former Republican governor and one-time head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush.

Whitman, an abortion rights supporter, told lawmakers she probably disagreed with Alito on some issues, but praised his intelligence and integrity, saying he would "serve with distinction" on the high court.

In his opening statement, the chairman of the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, signaled where much of the hearings will delve.

"Perhaps the dominant issue is the widespread concern about Judge Alito's position on a woman's right to choose," said Specter, who favors abortion rights. "This has arisen, in part, because of a 1985 statement by Judge Alito that the Constitution does not provide the right to an abortion.

"This hearing will give Judge Alito the public forum to address the issue, as he has with senators in private meetings, that his personal views and prior advocacy will not determine his judicial decision."

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey released Monday found that 49 percent of Americans believed the Senate should confirm Alito, while 30 percent said it should not and 21 percent were unsure.

But 56 percent said they would not support Alito if they were convinced he would overturn the right to an abortion. (Full story)

Dozens of people on both sides of the abortion issue protested Monday outside the Supreme Court, which returned to public sessions after a monthlong break.

Views on presidential authority questioned

The Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said he would focus on whether Alito would be overly deferential to White House authority.

"In a time when this administration seems intent on accumulating unchecked power, Judge Alito's views on executive power are especially important," he said. "It is important to know whether he would serve with judicial independence or as a surrogate for the president who nominated him."

Other lawmakers went further.

"I am gravely concerned by Judge Alito's clear record of support for vast presidential authority unchecked by the other two branches of government," said Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"He has supported a level of overreaching presidential power that, frankly, most Americans find disturbing and even frightening," the Massachusetts Democrat said.

But Republicans warned against turning the hearings into a partisan attack on Alito and the Bush administration.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, urged his colleagues to "consider Judge Alito's entire record and apply a judicial rather than a political standard."

Groups for and against the nominee were ready for a rapid response campaign. The American Civil Liberties Union announced its formal opposition, and the liberal group independentcourt.org headlined an e-mail to supporters: "Judge Alito: Cannot be trusted to uphold settled precedent."

The conservative Concerned Women for America praised Alito and said the group was disappointed at the opposition's tactics of "deception, distortion and delay."

Alito began the proceedings by introducing family members who sat a few feet away. His wife, two children and sister were among those in attendance.

Predictable pattern

The brief remarks from senators followed a predictable pattern.

Republicans praised Alito's 15 years of service on the federal bench, his judicial temperament and his devotion to the rule of law. Democrats expressed concern over whether his conservative views were outside the "mainstream," and whether he was insensitive to individual rights.

Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, said he planned a closer look at Alito's rulings affecting women, because the judge would replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, considered a moderate swing vote on the court.

On the other side, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, asked, "Are we going to take one case and one issue and if we don't get the answer that we like, that represents our political view on that issue, are we going to bring the judiciary to their knees?"

And Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, strongly hinted his support: "I view your nomination with a heavy presumption in favor of confirmation."

Specter said he hoped the committee could vote on Alito's confirmation next week, and the full Senate could vote the week after that.

Bush nominated Alito October 31 to fill O'Connor's position after White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew her name from consideration.

Miers got the nod when Bush nominated his original choice to fill O'Connor's seat, John Roberts, to be chief justice. Roberts was confirmed in September by a 78-22 vote.

Before the hearing's start, President Bush was host at a White House breakfast for Alito, saying the judge has conducted himself with "dignity and class" and said he is "eminently qualified" to be a justice. (Watch Bush give the nominee a send-off before the hearing -- 1:45)

CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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