WASHINGTON – Distancing himself from his past conservative views on abortion and other social issues, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito told some senators Tuesday that as a judge he would not impose his personal opinions on issues that come before him.
The appeals court judge, continuing his get-acquainted visits with lawmakers, sought to downplay the significance of a memo he wrote in 1985 in which he opposed racial and ethnic quotas and said he did not believe the Constitution afforded women the right to abortion.
The memo was part of a job application for a political position in the Reagan administration, and its release on Monday drew concern among liberal senators and advocacy groups that Alito would attempt to legislate his conservative views from the bench.
But after he met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a supporter of abortion rights, the California Democrat said she felt reassured that Alito would strictly interpret the law as he said he has done as a judge on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals since 1990.
Feinstein said Alito told her:
“First of all, it was different then. I was an advocate seeking a job. It was a political job. And that was 1985.
“I’m now a judge, you know. I’ve been on the circuit court for 15 years. And it’s very different. I’m not an advocate. I don’t give heed to my personal views. What I do is interpret the law.”
Feinstein said she was persuaded. “I believe he was very sincere in what he said,” she said. Referring to the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion, she added, “He talked about Roe in particular, about (it) having had many reviews” by the Supreme Court.
She said that although Alito did not say the landmark decision was “well settled,” he did use the words “stare decisis” – meaning “to stand by that which is decided.”
She later said that if after Alito’s confirmation hearings she thought that he would seek to overturn Roe, she would vote against him.
Alito confronts the same problem faced by other Republican nominees to the Supreme Court following Reagan’s election. Since 1980, the GOP platform has pledged that the president would appoint judges who will defend the “sanctity of life” and overturn the Roe decision.
In 1987, Court of Appeals Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated in the Senate after he forthrightly defended his previously stated view that Roe was wrong and should be overruled.
Since then, successful conservative nominees have told senators they believe the Constitution includes a “right to privacy” – the basis for the abortion ruling – without saying whether they believe the privacy right includes abortion. They have also stressed their support for precedent – again, without saying whether Roe is a precedent they would support.