Battle for the court begins
With conservative bona fides, Samuel Alito faces stiff Senate opposition to his nomination.
For activists spoiling for war over the Supreme Court, President Bush has just delivered. The nomination Monday of Samuel Alito, a conservative federal appeals court judge with an Ivy League pedigree and a long paper trail, instantly fired up the president's supporters and inflamed liberals.Skip to next paragraph
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By selecting a solid conservative to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - a moderate swing vote on divisive social issues like abortion and affirmative action - Mr. Bush has signaled his intent to shift the high court clearly to the right.
At last, his supporters say, Bush has fulfilled his campaign promise to nominate justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Even the new chief justice, John Roberts, remains an enigma to some conservatives, who continue to express concern that he will not be a completely reliable ally of the court's conservatives.
Of course, no new justice's vote is a sure thing, but in those crucial first hours post-nomination, Bush's base hailed Mr. Alito, citing the clearly conservative judicial philosophy evident during his 15 years on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The reaction from liberal interest groups was equally sharp in opposition. A big question from the Senate, which is constitutionally required to pass judgment on federal court nominations, is whether Alito will trigger a battle over the use of the filibuster if Democrats decide to use this tactic to try to thwart confirmation.
As a political move, analysts say, the Alito pick has helped Bush. His second term has been marred by scandal, missteps on federal responses to hurricanes, high gas prices, and declining public support for the Iraq war.
His earlier Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers produced a schism among Republicans, which began to heal with her withdrawal last week, on the eve of the indictment of former White House aide I. Lewis Libby.
Now, Bush's base has moved from merely reunited to enthusiastic. He has gone on the offensive and created a rallying point by throwing down a gauntlet to liberal partisans spoiling for a fight over the Supreme Court.
For Mr. Bush, the Alito nomination represents "a step toward a comeback," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter. "He'll have to do a lot right for a long time to have a real comeback. But Republicans are still better off if they're arguing over conservative versus liberal, judicial activism versus strict construction, than if they're talking about the government's response to FEMA, administration ethics issues, [and] high gas prices."
Alito has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court candidate since the beginning of Bush's tenure, when it was widely assumed the president would have at least one vacancy to fill.
As a white male with a strong conservative record, Alito seemed perhaps a long shot. But in just a few months, the political calculus has changed. Justice Roberts's limited paper trail gave the left little to grab onto and the right feeling only cautiously optimistic. The Miers episode left the right dumbfounded. Now, gender and other diversity factors, such as life experience, have moved to the back burner.
"This shows that President Bush prizes legal philosophy above all else," says Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.