Monday, January 02, 2006

Alito Team Says He Lacks Polish, but Grit Is a Plus

I'm not sure what to make of this story. This is from The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 1 - As Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. enters his final week of dress rehearsals for his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, participants say his performance has already made one thing clear: he will never be as polished and camera-ready as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was at his own hearings a few months ago.

"He is not going to be the well-manicured nominee," said one participant in the rehearsals, known as murder boards, at which Republican lawyers have played the roles of interrogating senators. "That is not to say it is going to be worse. It is just going to be different."

How Judge Alito will come off before the panel of senators and television cameras is an unknown in the politics of his confirmation. Senators of both parties have said it will not be easy to follow Chief Justice Roberts, about whom Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said "they retired the trophy" for an outstanding performance by a judicial nominee.

Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. AP File Photo.

And some Democrats said they already had much more pointed questions waiting for Judge Alito, focusing mainly on strongly worded statements that he made as lawyer in the Reagan administration about his conservative approach to the Constitution, abortion rights and other issues. Leading Democratic senators have said his responses will be a deciding factor in whether they seek to block the nomination by filibustering.

But two of Judge Alito's supporters who participated in the murder boards, speaking about the confidential sessions on condition of anonymity for fear of White House reprisals, said they emerged convinced that his demeanor was a political asset because it gave him an Everyman appeal.

An "Everyman appeal?" Not a "well-manicured nominee?" Personally, I could care less on how he looks, or what color is his suit and tie, or whether he has a piece of food stuck between his teeth. The Republican spin-meisters seem to think that spit-and-polish is the main factor in determining Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. I'm concerned about his judicial philosophy--how he views issues of abortion, rights of accused, torture, NSA wiretaps, and checks-and-balances between the legislative and executive branches of our government. I want to know how Alito is going to rule on today's complex and controversial issues--and whether he's a moderate in his philosophy, or a right-wingnut. What's the Republican spin-meisters talking about--a comparison between Alito's grooming appearance and that of Chief Justice John Roberts? Continuing on with the story:

"He will have a couple hairs out of place," one participant said. "I am not sure his glasses fit his facial features. He might not wear the right color tie. He won't be tanned. He will look like he is from New Jersey, because he is. That is a very useful look, because it is a natural look. He's able to go toe-to-toe with senators, and at the same time he could be your son's Little League coach."

What is more, this participant said, Judge Alito displayed a "street smart" New Jerseyan's willingness to talk back to his questioners. Unlike Chief Justice Roberts, Judge Alito often turned inquiries back on the lawyers who were quizzing him, politely asking them to spell out exactly what they meant, two participants said.

Judge Alito "had no bones about coming back for clarification," the same person said, adding that the judge sometimes stumped the legal experts acting in the roles of senators and suggesting that he could pose an even greater challenge to actual senators reading from staff talking points. Still, both participants emphasized that during the practice sessions, Judge Alito never became heated or combative.

Judge Alito never became heated or combative in those "murder boards," because he knew they were dress rehearsals. They are not the real thing--no matter how realistic the spin-meisters can make them. We won't know how Alito reacts until he's actually grilled by the likes of Specter, Kennedy, Hatch, Feinstein, Schumer, Biden or any of the other senators on the Judiciary Committee. Consider this from the Times story:

Some Democrats, however, say Judge Alito's less-polished style may also be a vulnerability. Two Democratic aides briefed on his meeting with Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said that when the senator pressed him about an opinion he had written involving the regulation of machine guns, Judge Alito grew defensive - something else Chief Justice Roberts never did. The aides, speaking anonymously because the meeting was private, said the episode led them to hope he might lose his cool in front of the committee, as well.

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman handling the nomination for the White House, said the aides' account of the exchange "has no basis in reality."

Alito got defensive on an opinion he'd written about the regulation of machine guns? You can bet the senators are going to bring up a number of issues on just about everything Alito may have written or said during his career. And it will be the curve balls that's going to get him--such as Schumer's machine gun questions. How many other curve balls are out there? Here is what Schumer had to say in the Times story:

Mr. Schumer declined to comment on the exchange. But he said Judge Alito's performance at the hearings would be "exceptionally important," in part because his long record as a lawyer in the Reagan administration and then as a judge in Newark on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit meant he had a lot to explain. And Democrats will be especially vigilant, Mr. Schumer said, because Judge Alito would succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's swing vote on abortion and other social issues.

"I think the hearings will determine what at least the Democrats and even some moderate Republicans do in terms of how they vote and whether we should try to block his nomination, meaning filibuster," Mr. Schumer said, referring to the procedural tactic that would allow a group of at least 41 senators to block confirmation by refusing to end debate.

Judge Alito's long conservative record, including strong statements critical of abortion rights, make it possible that a few abortion-rights supporters among the 55-member Republican majority in the Senate might break with their party over confirmation, and the Democrats have pointedly refused to rule out a filibuster.

If the Bush White House is trying to "put lipstick on a pig," then trying to sell Alito off to Congress and the American public, let's hope the Democrats will not back down, and fight against this nominee with everything--including the filibuster. Until then, we need to watch these confirmation hearings very carefully.

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