Senate Dems to question Alito on executive branch power

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., calls judge's support for executive branch throughout his career "genuinely troubling."

Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats put Judge Samuel Alito on notice Monday that they will grill him aggressively during this week's confirmation hearings about whether he can be a check on what Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called an "all-powerful executive branch."

Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Kennedy began by stressing the need for judicial independence from the executive branch in light of recent disclosures about the government's spying on U.S. citizens in its war on terrorism. Leahy noted Alito would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a swing vote in many key cases who wrote that even war "is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."

The toughest attack came from Kennedy, who called Alito's support for the executive branch "genuinely troubling." Noting that the courts must decide whether the White House has gone too far, Kennedy said he is "gravely concerned" by Alito's clear record of support for vast presidential authority, unchecked by two branches of government.

"In decision after decision on the bench, he has excused abusive actions by authorities that intrude on the personal privacy and freedoms of average Americans," Kennedy said. Also speaking to the need for independence, Leahy told Alito he would ask him "to demonstrate his independence from the interests of the president."

Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., began the hearings by laying out three areas he would explore -- abortion rights, executive authority and the relation of Congress and the courts. Saying he had not made up his mind about whether he would support the nominee, Specter pledged to hold "a full, fair and dignified hearing." He added that "hearings are a subtle minuet, with nominees answering as many questions as they think they have to in order to be confirmed."

That sparked a later retort from Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who asked Alito to be forthcoming in answering questions about his earlier constitutional writings. "I hope this doesn't turn out to be a minuet. I hope it will be conversation," he said.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., noted that Alito has more experience as a judge than any other Supreme Court nominee in 70 years and, along with many other Republicans, indicated his inclination to support him.

President Bush called on the Senate to conduct a "dignified" hearing. "My hope, of course, is that the Senate bring dignity to the process and give this man a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor," he said after an appearance at the White House with Alito. "I know the American people will be impressed, just like I have been impressed and a lot of other members of the Senate have been impressed," Bush said.

The hearings will continue Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., with 30 minutes allotted per senator for the first round of questioning. Senators will be given 20 minutes each for questions in a second round expected to start sometime Wednesday. Further rounds are possible.

Specter said he hopes to hold a committee vote Jan. 17 on the nomination. Senate Majority Leader Frist said he hopes to confirm Alito by Jan. 20, when the Supreme Court resumes its work, but committee Democrats could upset that schedule if they exercise their right to delay the committee for a week until Jan. 24.

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