WASHINGTON — Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. became the nation’s 110th Supreme Court justice today, confirmed with one of the most partisan victories in modern history after a fierce battle over the future direction of the high court.
The Senate voted 58-42 to confirm Alito — a former federal appellate judge, U.S. attorney, and conservative lawyer for the Reagan administration from New Jersey — as the replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been a moderate swing vote on the court.
All but one of the Senate’s majority Republicans voted for his confirmation, while all but four of the Democrats voted against Alito.
That is the smallest number of senators in the president’s opposing party to support a Supreme Court justice in modern history. Chief Justice John Roberts received 22 Democratic votes last year, and Justice Clarence Thomas — who was confirmed in 1991 on a 52-48 vote — got 11 Democratic votes.
President Bush and Alito watched the vote together in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Bush shook Alito’s hand and aides erupted in a long round of applause when final approval came. He was to be sworn in by Roberts in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court later in the day, in plenty of time for him to appear with Bush at the State of the Union speech today.
Alito will be ceremonially sworn in a second time at a White House East Room appearance Wednesday.
With the confirmation vote, O’Connor’s resignation became official. She resigned in July but agreed to remain until her successor was confirmed. She was in Arizona this week teaching a class at the University of Arizona law school.
Underscoring the rarity of a Supreme Court justice confirmation, senators answered the roll by standing one by one at their desks as their names were called, instead of voting and leaving the chamber. Alito and Roberts are the first two new members of the Supreme Court since 1994.
Alito is a longtime federal appeals judge, having been confirmed by the Senate’s unanimous consent on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on April 27, 1990. Before that, he worked as New Jersey’s U.S. attorney and as a lawyer in the Justice Department for the conservative Reagan administration.
It was his Reagan-era work that caused the most controversy during his three-month candidacy for the high court.
Alito replaces O’Connor, the court’s first female justice and a key moderate swing vote on issues like assisted suicide, campaign finance law, the death penalty, affirmative action and abortion.
Critics who mounted a fierce campaign against his nomination noted that while he worked in the solicitor general’s office for President Reagan, he suggested that the Justice Department should try to chip away at abortion rights rather than mount an all-out assault. He also wrote in a 1985 job application for another Reagan administration post that he was proud of his work helping the government argue that “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”
Now, Alito says, he has great respect for Roe as a precedent but refused to commit to upholding it in the future. “I would approach the question with an open mind, and I would listen to the arguments that were made,” he told senators at his confirmation hearing earlier this month.
Democrats weren’t convinced, with liberals even unsuccessfully trying to rally support to filibuster Alito on Monday. “The 1985 document amounted to Judge Alito’s pledge of allegiance to a conservative radical Republican ideology,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said before the vote.
They also repeatedly questioned Alito at his five-day confirmation hearing after he would not discuss his opinions about abortion or other contentious topics. At one point, his wife, Martha-Ann, started crying and left the hearing room as her husband’s supporters defended him from the Democratic questioning.
“To Judge Alito, I say you deserve a seat on the Supreme Court,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
While many predicted a dramatic showdown — similar to the filibuster battles and all-night talk-a-thons that happened with Bush’s lower court appointments — it never happened.
The GOP’s 55-vote majority was enough to ensure confirmation, and it was supported by groups like Progress for America, which said it would spend as much as $18 million on confirmation battles. The 44 Democrats were not able to keep their party unified enough to filibuster Alito despite calls from groups like People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights and the Alliance for Justice.
Groups both for and against Alito spent slightly over $2.5 million on advertising between his nomination on Oct. 31 and Jan. 22. That’s nearly double the amount spent on Roberts’ nomination, said the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Justice at Stake Campaign.
Alito’s path to the Supreme Court is infused with New Jersey connections. Born in Trenton as the son of an Italian immigrant, he attended Princeton University. He headed to Connecticut to receive his law degree, graduating from Yale University in 1975. His late father, Samuel Alito Sr., was the director of New Jersey’s Office of Legislative Services from 1952 to 1984. Alito’s sister, Rosemary, is a top employment lawyer in New Jersey.
Alito was not the White House’s first choice — or even second choice — for the Supreme Court. Bush picked Roberts when O’Connor first announced she was stepping down last year.
After Roberts was promoted to the top spot after Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, the White House again passed over Alito for the vacant seat, instead selecting White House counsel Harriet Miers.
Miers’ withdrawal following a barrage of conservative criticism in late October finally brought Alito’s name to the forefront, although he then had to contend with constant references as “Scalito” or “Scalia-lite,” references to his judicial similarity to Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I’m my own person. And I’m not like any other justice on the Supreme Court now or anybody else who served on the Supreme Court in the past,” Alito said at his confirmation hearing.