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Democrats grill Supreme Court nominee

Alito's wife leaves in tears over questions on Princeton group

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito waits Wednesday for the second day of questioning to begin.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Emotions ran high Wednesday as the Senate Judiciary Committee continued to question Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, and the top Democrat cited concern over what he called "inconsistencies" in the judge's testimony.

At one point, the nominee's wife left the hearings in tears, but appeared composed when she returned to her seat behind the nominee minutes later.

Questioning of Alito was scheduled to conclude Thursday morning. The committee will also hear from supporters and opponents, as well as from the American Bar Association, which recently gave him its highest ranking for judicial qualification.

As Democrats continued to hammer Alito, the party's ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, told Alito he was "concerned that you may be retreating from part of your record."

"A number of us have been troubled by what we see as inconsistencies in some of the answers," Leahy said.

Republicans offered encouragement before the second day of hearings ended for Alito, whom President Bush nominated October 31 to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"They tried to sack you and they haven't done a very good job at it," said Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, adding the judge's "opponents are very desperate." (Pundit Scorecard)

Alito's wife, Martha-Ann Alito, was overcome with emotion as Sen. Lindsey Graham called her husband "a decent, honorable man." (Watch wife brought to tears -- 1:57)

That comment came just after the South Carolina Republican said to Alito: "Are you really a closet bigot? No, sir, you're not."

"I am sorry that you've had to go through this," Graham said moments later.

A staffer said Martha-Ann Alito was apparently upset at an earlier line of questioning over her husband's prior membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton.

Alito, who listed membership in the group on a 1985 job application, said he did not recall joining and strongly denounced the group's purported support for admission restrictions on women and minorities.

While the nominee remained calm, an angry exchange occurred between the Republican chairman, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Kennedy criticized Alito's membership in the Princeton alumni group and wanted the committee to subpoena its records, which are housed in the Library of Congress. He demanded Specter immediately rule on the matter. (Watch as nomination hearing gets heated -- 3:31)

Specter said it was the first time he had heard about Kennedy's request. The two lawmakers then exchanged heated words over whether that was true.

Later, Specter said he had discussed the issue with staff during a break and was reminded that he had dismissed it as "unmeritorious."

However, he said that Kennedy's staffers "are en route or at the Library of Congress to look at these records."

Outside the hearing room, Kennedy cast doubt on Alito's testimony.

"It's extraordinary to me that this nominee can remember all 67 of his dissents in great detail ... and he still is mystified about his association with a CAP organization that he used as a job reference," he said.

Similar questions

Lawmakers covered familiar territory Wednesday, raising many topics discussed by Alito the day before.

The judge again refused to say whether the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion should be revisited by the Supreme Court. (Alito pressed again on abortion -- 8:10)

The nominee refused repeated attempts by Democratic senators -- including Iliniois' Richard Durbin and California's Dianne Feinstein -- to say the case was "well settled" in the law.

Chief Justice John Roberts used that term to describe Roe v. Wade's impact during his confirmation hearings in September.

Alito instead noted Roe v. Wade has survived many attempts to overturn it, and called it an important precedent deserving of respect. (Alito's key remarks)

"When a decision is challenged and reaffirmed, it increases its value," said Alito. "The more times it happens, the more respect it has."

Durbin questioned whether Alito would have an "open mind" on the issue, as he promised lawmakers Tuesday, and said the nominee's past statements reveal "a mind that sadly is closed in some instances."

Meanwhile, a GOP political group with which several moderate senators are affiliated announced its formal opposition to Alito's nomination.

The Republican Majority for Choice said the judge was "out of step with mainstream Americans on the issue of abortion and maintaining the legal right to choose."

Among those listed on the group's "advisory committee" are GOP senators Specter, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Lincoln Chafee. All support abortion rights, but the lawmakers have not indicated how they would vote on Alito's nomination.

Possible filibuster?

Specter has said he hoped the committee could vote on Alito's confirmation next week and the full Senate could vote the following week.

The GOP controls 55 seats in the Senate, meaning Alito would be confirmed unless some Republicans vote no or Democrats block a full Senate vote through parliamentary procedure.

Sen. Charles Schumer hedged on whether Democrats would filibuster.

"I would say it [a filibuster] is certainly not off the table at this point," the New York Democrat told CNN on Wednesday.

When asked what would justify a filibuster and if Democrats were removed from the mainstream, Schumer responded with an example, saying that most Americans believe the conservative Justice Clarence Thomas is out of the mainstream.

"Is Judge Alito going to be like a Justice Thomas? That's the question we have to try to get to the bottom of," Schumer said.

Another Democratic member of the panel, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, later cast doubt on the chance of a filibuster.

"I don't think that's likely is my guess," he told CNN.

Other issues:

  • Alito said courts could use better direction from the legislative branch over when federal courts should get involved in end-of-life disputes such as that involving Terri Schiavo last year. "Congress can give us a role in decisions of this nature or Congress can keep the federal courts out of it and leave it to the state courts," he said.
  • The nominee denied he favored prosecutors and big businesses against "the average person, the dispossessed person, the poor person," as Durbin put it.
  • Alito also politely passed on whether he would definitely support allowing cameras in the Supreme Court, but said he had backed the idea for the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he is a judge.
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