Alito likely to sail into role as Bush's latest Supreme Court judge

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The Independent US

After a grilling that spanned three days, 18 hours and 700 individual questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Samuel Alito appeared to be cruising towards final confirmation as the newest justice on the US Supreme Court, with final votes set for as early as next week. Judge Alito made his final appearance before the committee on Thursday while members yesterday heard from several outside witnesses before winding up the hearings. While some Democrats were hoping to delay a final vote on Judge Alito beyond next week, few in Washington doubted that he had emerged intact from the process.

President George Bush, who nominated Judge Alito in October, sent him a message of congratulations, saying he had done a "great job" in front of the panel and had "showed great class".

Judge Alito entered the hearings with the reputation as a conservative and faced pressure from Democrats to explain his positions on issues ranging from abortion to the powers of the presidency. He tried to reassure the committee he would keep an open mind on such matters, taking each case at a time on their legal merits. "I'd be the same sort of justice in the Supreme Court as I've been a judge on the Court of Appeals," he declared.

This did not satisfy Senator Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, who argued that Judge Alito had shown a tendency over his career to favour the powerful over ordinary citizens. "In case after case we see legal contortion, inconsistent reasoning to bend over backwards to help the powerful," he said. The only strategy left to Democrats to block the nomination would be to launch a vote-blocking filibuster on the full Senate floor. But that now seems highly unlikely, even if sufficient votes for a filibuster could be found. They have asked, however, for an additional week before the vote is taken to review further Judge Alito's record.

Senator Arlen Specter, the leading Republican on the committee, said the schedule for taking final votes in the committee and on the Senate floor remained up in the air. "It's been very hard to focus on that," he said.

During his questioning, Judge Alito repeatedly spoke of his respect for judicial precedent, but he declined to say whether he considered the 1973 landmark ruling on abortion, Roe v Wade, to be "settled law".

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to speak about issues that could realistically come up" before the court, he insisted.