Alito Steps Carefully Before Senators

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, uses a chart called The "Model Supreme Court Justice" while questioning U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito at the Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings, 1-10-06. The chart says that if Sandra Day O'Connor is "in the mainstream," so is Alito, since both set limits on Congress' commerce power; struck down affirmative action policies; and criticized Roe v. Wade.
Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito picked his way carefully Tuesday through the issues of abortion and warrantless wiretapping, satisfying Senate Republicans at his confirmation hearings but provoking Democratic expressions of displeasure.

Senators often seemed less interested in Alito's long paper trail as a federal judge than in his opinions on current events, especially the recent disclosure that the administration eavesdropped on Americans without court-ordered warrants, reports CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger.

He asserted that the Bill of Rights still applied "in times of war and in times of national crisis," but he declined to say whether President Bush acted properly in ordering wiretaps without warrants as part of the war on terror.

In a long day in the Senate Judiciary Committee witness chair, Alito was asked repeatedly about abortion. He assured Democratic senators he would take previous rulings into account if confronted as a justice with cases involving abortion rights.

He stressed that precedent alone does not bind the high court, however. Beyond that,

said Alito, who wrote two decades ago that he did not believe the Constitution includes the right to an abortion.

The 55-year-old appeals court judge distanced himself at times during the day from some of the conservative views he expressed as a younger man, saying he had been a "line attorney" in the Reagan administration at the time.

Under pressure from Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Alito admitted he did not know whether had ever followed through on a promise he made to the Senate at the time of his confirmation to the appeals court in 1990.

At the time, he said he would avoid cases involving Vanguard, where he had money invested. But he told Feingold he did not know whether he had ever told appeals court officials about his pledge. And discarding an earlier explanation, he said "It was not a computer glitch," that led to his participation in a 2002 case involving Vanguard.

CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen says Alito has done quite well so far. "Not only is he holding his own in the give and take of the substance of the questioning, but his demeanor has been very tempered, very judge-like, which was frankly an open question going into the hearing."

Cohen adds, however, that tougher questions from the senators could be coming at Wednesday's session.

"I don't think he has yet been pressed heavily and repeatedly on some of the core questions on abortion rights, privacy rights, executive power. I think that is going to come later, maybe during the second round of questioning tomorrow. And I think it explains why we haven't seen much drama or contention," Cohen says.

Bush picked Alito last fall to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the court, and her record of casting the tie-breaking vote on issues such as abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty has heightened the political stakes for his nomination.

Bush's first pick, Harriet Miers, withdrew in the face of implacable opposition from abortion opponents and other conservatives, and Democrats have repeatedly questioned why the same groups have cleared Alito's appointment when they could not abide hers.