Same Planet, Different World

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, center, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., left, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking Democrat on the committee, prior to the start of his confirmation hearing before the committee on Capitol Hill, Monday, Jan. 9, 2006. (AP Photo)
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

There were times Monday in Room 216 of the Hart Office Building when it seemed that there were two nominees to the United States Supreme Court. Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee mostly lauded Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. as if he were a paragon of justice and fairness. Democratic Senators on the Committee mostly blasted the appeals court jurist as a heartless ideologue who never met a conservative cause he didn't rush to embrace.

There also were times Monday during the latest confirmation battle when it seemed that there were two different Constitutions and two different systems of government operating today in the United States. Republican committee members spoke at great lengths of a static Constitution which cemented into place a very limited role for judges in the role of governance. Democratic committee members described instead a Constitution with built-in flexibility and the need for a strong judiciary capable of performing its checks and balances over the other two branches, especially in a time of war.

Of course, the truth about Judge Alito, and the Constitution, lies somewhere in the middle of the two political and legal extremes on display Monday, hour after laborious hour, during the first-round of Senate speechifying in what promises to be a big week for blowhards. As a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, the nominee himself is used to listening to people drone on long after they are being listened to. So it probably wasn't as hard for him as for others to sit there, at that small, red-clothed table in the middle of the room, and hear the senators talk through him at each other and at the American people.

When the Judge finally got his chance to speak, late in the afternoon, he displayed precisely the sort of brevity and linguistic precision that have marked his professional career. Looking very much both like a former prosecutor and a pointy-headed judge, his tie not quite right, his suit not quite perfect, Alito appeared very nervous at first. Talking softly, his voice catching a bit, he told a lame lawyer's joke, the kind you hear at bar association functions across the country, before launching into the brief story of his life. "I am who I am," he began, "because of my parents."

The story of Judge Alito's life — his rise to prominence from humble beginnings — is a wonderful one, full of valuable lessons, great optimism and loads of gritty character and hard work. It is thus an American story, which is why Alito's supporters want him to repeat it as often as he can and why his detractors are willing to stipulate to it in order to get to the substance of the hearing. I thought Alito would go on and on about his life and the values it inspired in him. He did not. I thought he would offer a spirited defense against some of the nastier charges against him. He did not. I thought he would provide a comprehensive view of his judicial philosophy so as to frame the debate for the rest of the week. He did not.