Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, an unbending opponent of abortion rights during the Reagan administration, relayed assurances Friday that he would put his private views aside when it came time to rule on the issue as a justice.
"He said that his personal feelings would not be a factor in his judicial decision," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said after a private meeting with Alito that was hastily arranged after several days of abortion-related controversy.
Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said Alito had indicated he would give weight to legal precedent in any abortion cases that came before the court. "He says that when a matter is embedded in the culture, it's a considerable factor in the application of stare decisis," the senator added, using a term that means adhering to principles laid down in previous decisions.
President Bush named Alito, 55 and an appeals court judge, to the court on Oct. 31. If confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, he would succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has often cast the swing vote on abortion, the death penalty and other contentious issues.
Specter, who supports abortion rights, declined to say whether he was satisfied with what he had heard in the privacy of his office. "I'm going to reserve judgment on the question as to whether Judge Alito can fairly judge an abortion case until he testifies," he said.
Specter has said repeatedly he will question Alito aggressively about abortion during confirmation hearings scheduled to begin Jan. 9. He told reporters that based on the appeals court decisions he had read so far, "he's not been an activist judge. ... He's been very doctrinaire and conservative."
The chairman said he met with Alito as part of an attempt to "keep the playing field level" in advance of the hearings.
"I'm concerned that we do not have a replay of what happened to White House counsel Harriet Miers, who was really sort of run out of town on a rail," he said.
Specter did not say so, but in Miers' case, it was ceaseless criticism from conservatives that forced her to withdraw her nomination in October without benefit of a hearing.
By contrast, the criticism of Alito has come from Democrats as well as women's rights and civil rights groups, who have increasingly raised questions about his views on abortion and his candor in responding to questions on a variety of issues.
Despite the criticism, Specter said, "I don't think the nomination is in trouble." Several other Republican officials said during the day that barring an unexpected turn at the hearings, they are confident that at least 52 GOP senators will vote to confirm Alito.
Specter said that in their private conversation, he had asked Alito about two 20-year-old documents. The first, written while Alito worked at the Justice Department's solicitor general's office, recommended a legal strategy of dismantling abortion rights piece by piece. The second was part of an application for a job as deputy assistant attorney general, in which he said the Constitution does not guarantee abortion rights.
As for the legal memo, Specter said: "He says that he was functioning as an advocate; that it was the position of the Reagan administration to seek to overrule Roe," the 1973 case that established abortion rights.
In the case of the other document, Specter quoted Alito as saying, "With respect to his personal views on a woman's right to choose, he says that 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 he did not ask Alito whether he holds the same views now that he held two decades ago.
In the legal memo dated May 30, 1985, Alito suggested a strategy of chipping away at the 1973 ruling that established abortion rights, rather than mounting a frontal assault likely to fail and damage the Reagan administration politically. His advice was rejected, but the court did as he predicted, refusing to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.
Six months later, Alito applied for a job as deputy assistant attorney general, and his application touched on his views on abortion.
He wrote that it had been an honor to "help advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly." Among them, he added, was "that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."