WASHINGTON—Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito was aggressively questioned Wednesday by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who accused him of inconsistencies on issues ranging from voting rights to ethics to his membership in a conservative organization.
On the third day of confirmation hearings, Democrats also expressed frustration as Alito described the landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion as "an important precedent" but declined to echo Chief Justice John Roberts, who has called it "settled law."
"A number of us have been troubled by what we see as inconsistencies in some of the answers," Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, the panel's ranking Democrat, told Alito.
Leahy listed several concerns, among them Alito's comments on the principle of one-man, one-vote and his inability to recall details about his membership — which he listed on a Reagan administration job application — in a conservative organization that opposed the admission of women and minorities at Princeton University, Alito's alma mater.
Republicans on the panel dismissed the criticism and defended Alito, President Bush's choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as a conservative jurist with a solid 15-year record on the federal appeals court.
Republicans hold the majority in the Senate — 55-44 with one independent — and Alito is expected to win confirmation to the high court when the Senate votes later this month. For Democrats to scuttle the nomination, they would need defections among the GOP ranks and solid opposition among their own members.
After challenging the 55-year-old Alito's court record and Reagan-era writings on Tuesday, Democrats took a new tack in accusing him of inconsistency.
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois cited Alito's testimony Tuesday in which he said he would have an open mind if faced with the question of abortion on the Supreme Court. The senator said the nominee's writings and testimony suggested otherwise, with "a mind that sadly is closed in some instances."
Chief Justice John Roberts has described Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling, as settled law. Alito said the ruling "is an important precedent of the Supreme Court," but he declined Durbin's repeated prodding to use the term "settled law."
On the Republican side, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said some Supreme Court decisions are indefensible and invite reconsideration. The court, Brownback said, had revisited some 200 cases for that very reason.
"Some precedents are undeserving of respect," he told Alito.
Democrats also voiced concern about Alito's answers concerning whether he told the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that he should not be hearing cases involving investment company Vanguard. He holds six-figure investments with Vanguard.
Alito promised the Judiciary Committee at his 1990 confirmation hearing as an appellate judge that he would remove himself from cases that present a conflict of interest. He said his participation in a 2002 Vanguard case was an oversight, although he also said he didn't do anything wrong. The American Bar Association and his supporters have accepted that explanation.
Alito would replace O'Connor, the swing vote on issues such as abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty during her 25 years on the court.
Republicans complained that Democrats had already made up their minds about Alito.
"I do think that there are those who have already decided to vote against your nomination and are looking for some reason to do so," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "And I think one of the reasons that they may claim is that you've been nonresponsive."
Cornyn said he saw nothing to derail Alito's confirmation.
Alito and the senators have covered a wide range of contentious issues, but the judge has not staked out any new or controversial positions.
Among other topics:
• Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., bristled at Supreme Court decisions that he said had undermined congressional authority, and he asked Alito whether it was appropriate for the courts to declare laws unconstitutional because of Congress's "method of reasoning."
"I think that Congress's ability to reason is fully equal to that of the judiciary," Alito said.
• He said he had argued — unsuccessfully — for courtroom cameras while serving on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Specter, an advocate for televising Supreme Court sessions, asked Alito if he would argue the same if confirmed.
Alito said the issue was "a little bit different" for the Supreme Court. "I will keep an open mind, despite the position I took on the 3rd Circuit," he said.
Asked repeatedly about abortion, he assured the committee on Tuesday he would first take previous rulings into account. At the same time, he stressed that precedent, including the Roe v. Wade decision, is not binding on the high court.
"I would approach the question with an open mind and I would listen to the arguments that were made," Alito said.
On another subject, he said Tuesday that the Bill of Rights applies "in times of war and in times of national crisis," although he declined to specify whether Bush acted properly in ordering wiretaps without warrants in selected cases as part of the war on terror.
Leahy first mentioned Alito's membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a group that opposed admission of increased numbers of women and minorities.
"I really have no specific recollection of that organization," Alito said, although he did not dispute that he belonged to it.
Democrats used much of their time to try to tear down Alito's past opinions, statements and speeches as a judge and a conservative lawyer for the Reagan administration, while Republicans used much of their time trying to defend him from that criticism.
Sen. Russ Feingold. D-Wis., pressed Alito on whether he actually told the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that he should not be hearing cases involving investment company Vanguard, with which he has investments.
"So you don't recall whether you notified them or not?" Feingold asked.
"I do not. No," Alito said.
Alito promised the Judiciary Committee at his 1990 confirmation hearing as an appellate judge that he would remove himself from cases involving Vanguard. His participation in a 2002 Vanguard case was an oversight although he said he didn't do anything wrong, Alito said. The American Bar Association and his supporters have accepted that explanation.
"If I had to do it over again there are things that I would do differently," Alito said.
— The Associated Press