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Senate confirms Alito, 58-42, provides conservatives hope for high court change

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate confirmed Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court Jan. 31, making him the 110th justice to serve on the country’s top judicial panel and providing hope the court might be moving toward more restraint in its decision making.

Four Democrats joined with all but one Republican to confirm Alito in a 58-42 vote. The confirmation was a foregone conclusion after the Senate voted to end debate Jan. 30 and eliminate the possibility of a filibuster intended to postpone or block a final vote on the nominee.

The Senate’s confirmation vote took place in the morning, and Alito, 55, was sworn in during an afternoon ceremony at the Supreme Court. Alito immediately replaced Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had announced her retirement in July but had continued to serve on the court until her successor was confirmed.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was the lone Republican to vote against Alito. The Democrats who supported confirmation were Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Alito’s confirmation provides President Bush with two successful nominees to the high court in barely four months’ time, despite opposition from abortion rights and other liberal organizations, as well as some of their Democratic allies in the Senate. The Senate confirmed John Roberts as chief justice Sept. 29 in a 78-22 vote.

Though Roberts and Alito appear to share a judicial philosophy focused on applying the original intent of the Constitution, the opposition to Alito was more pronounced, largely because of the kind of justice he was chosen to replace. While Roberts replaced a conservative, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Alito was nominated to replace, in O’Connor, a swing voter who often sided with the court’s liberals on such contentious issues as abortion and church-state relations.

The addition of Alito, who has established a reputation for judicial restraint in 15 years on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, boosts the hopes of pro-life advocates and other social conservatives that the nine-member court may begin to move at least somewhat away from its mostly liberal direction in recent decades.

Alito’s presence, however, will not change the high court’s support for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion legalizing abortion, unless a current justice changes his vote. Even without O’Connor, the Supreme Court has five justices who have endorsed Roe.

Bush congratulated Alito after the vote and described him in a written statement as “a brilliant and fair-minded judge who strictly interprets the Constitution and laws and does not legislate from the bench. He is a man of deep character and integrity, and he will make all Americans proud as a justice on our highest court.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called it “a great day for all Americans who cherish our constitutional form of government with its checks and balances to guard against any one branch of the federal government gaining too much power over Americans’ lives.”

“Tens of millions of Americans, and I would include myself in that number, have been extremely anguished about the increasingly, some would say unconstitutionally, powerful role of the Supreme Court over the last four decades,” Land told Baptist Press. “Increasingly, the Supreme Court felt no compunction about striking down laws passed by the people’s representatives in Congress and the state legislatures that offended their personal sense of right and wrong, as opposed to interpreting the Constitution.

“Today, a giant step has been made toward restoring the constitutional balance of powers envisioned by the founders of our nation,” Land said.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a written release the confirmation vote “marks a hopeful turning point for the country and the rule of law. We do not suggest an understanding of how Justice Alito will rule on particular matters before the court, but we remain confident in the judicial philosophy he has aspired toward.”

Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund, expressed in a written statement the hope Alito would help “reverse the increasing tendency of judges to legislate from the bench.”

Meanwhile, Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice and a leading foe of conservative judicial nominees for two decades, called it “a sad day for our country” and described Alito as a “divisive nominee.”

“Other than Clarence Thomas, Judge Alito received more no votes than any Supreme Court [justice] in the last 100 years,” Aron said in a written statement.

The Senate confirmed Thomas, who is normally a solid conservative vote on the high court, by a 52-48 margin in 1991.

“Elections have consequences,” Land said. “In both 2000 and 2004, President George W. Bush campaigned openly and aggressively on the promise that he would nominate and seek confirmation only of strict constructionist, original intent jurists who would pledge themselves to interpret the Constitution and not seek to act as the country’s unelected legislators. The added bonus in the president’s successful nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito is that they combine strongly held views of judicial restraint with skills and abilities which make them two of the most gifted Supreme Court justices who have ever been confirmed by the Senate.”

The day before the confirmation vote, the Senate decided by a 72-25 margin to end debate. Nineteen Democrats joined with all the Republicans who voted, 53, to surpass the requirement of 60 for a successful vote, known as invoking cloture. Confirmation required only a majority of the 100 senators.

The senators from Massachusetts, John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, sought unsuccessfully to rally support among their Democratic colleagues for a filibuster.

Democrats have had some success in recent years in using filibusters to block confirmation votes on some of Bush’s federal appeals court nominees.

In May, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was prepared to call for a rule change, referred to as the “nuclear option” by some senators, requiring only a majority, instead of 60 votes, to end a filibuster of a judicial nominee. On the eve of the vote, 14 senators, seven from each party, reached an agreement that prevented such an action by Frist.

In the compromise, the seven Democrats pledged to use the filibuster only in “extraordinary circumstances,” while the seven Republicans were permitted to use the “nuclear option” if they believe future nominees are being filibustered for circumstances that are not “extraordinary.”

After the confirmation vote on Alito, one of the Republican participants in the agreement, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, said at a news conference, “Our group of 14 that got together a few months ago held together. All 14 members voted for cloture. All 14 members, by that vote, indicated that this was not extraordinary circumstances…. So, for the second time in a row, it has worked…. Two members appointed by the president — two nominees to the United States Supreme Court — have now been confirmed since that agreement.”

Among the 14, two of the Democrats –- Byrd and Nelson –- voted for Alito’s confirmation. Chafee, who voted against confirmation, was one of the seven GOP members who agreed to the compromise.

Bush originally nominated Roberts to replace O’Connor after she announced her retirement. When Rehnquist died in early September, the president changed plans and chose Roberts for that post.

The president then nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to fill O’Connor’s place on the court, but she withdrew as a candidate in late October after vocal opposition from some conservatives. Bush quickly chose Alito as her replacement.
Michael Foust contributed to this article.