Senators in Need of a Spine

Editorial

New York Times

January 26, 2006

Judge Samuel Alito Jr., whose entire history suggests that he holds extreme views about the expansive powers of the presidency and the limited role of Congress, will almost certainly be a Supreme Court justice soon. His elevation will come courtesy of a president whose grandiose vision of his own powers threatens to undermine the nation's basic philosophy of government and a Senate that seems eager to cooperate by rolling over and playing dead.

It is hard to imagine a moment when it would be more appropriate for senators to fight for a principle. Even a losing battle would draw the public's attention to the import of this nomination.

At the Judiciary Committee hearings, the judge followed the well-worn path to confirmation, which has the nominee offer up only the most boring statements and unarguable truisms: the president is not above the law; diversity in college student bodies is a good thing. But in what he has said in the past, and what he refused to say in the hearings, Judge Alito raised warning flags that, in the current political context, cannot simply be shrugged away with a promise to fight again another day.

The Alito nomination has been discussed largely in the context of his opposition to abortion rights, and if the hearings provided any serious insight at all into the nominee's intentions, it was that he has never changed his early convictions on that point. The judge who long maintained that Roe v. Wade should be overturned ignored all the efforts by the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Arlen Specter, to get him to provide some cover for pro-choice senators who wanted to support the nomination. As it stands, it is indefensible for Mr. Specter or any other senator who has promised constituents to protect a woman's right to an abortion to turn around and hand Judge Alito a potent vote to undermine or even end it.

But portraying the Alito nomination as just another volley in the culture wars vastly underestimates its significance. The judge's record strongly suggests that he is an eager lieutenant in the ranks of the conservative theorists who ignore our system of checks and balances, elevating the presidency over everything else. He has expressed little enthusiasm for restrictions on presidential power and has espoused the peculiar argument that a president's intent in signing a bill is just as important as the intent of Congress in writing it. This would be worrisome at any time, but it takes on far more significance now, when the Bush administration seems determined to use the cover of the "war on terror" and presidential privilege to ignore every restraint, from the Constitution to Congressional demands for information.

There was nothing that Judge Alito said in his hearings that gave any comfort to those of us who wonder whether the new Roberts court will follow precedent and continue to affirm, for instance, that a man the president labels an "unlawful enemy combatant" has the basic right to challenge the government's ability to hold him in detention forever without explanation. His much-quoted statement that the president is not above the law is meaningless unless he also believes that the law requires the chief executive to defer to Congress and the courts.

Judge Alito's refusal to even pretend to sound like a moderate was telling because it would have cost him so little. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who was far more skillful at appearing mainstream at the hearings, has already given indications that whatever he said about the limits of executive power when he was questioned by the Senate has little practical impact on how he will rule now that he has a lifetime appointment.

Senate Democrats, who presented a united front against the nomination of Judge Alito in the Judiciary Committee, seem unwilling to risk the public criticism that might come with a filibuster particularly since there is very little chance it would work. Judge Alito's supporters would almost certainly be able to muster the 60 senators necessary to put the nomination to a final vote.

A filibuster is a radical tool. It's easy to see why Democrats are frightened of it. But from our perspective, there are some things far more frightening. One of them is Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court.