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Alito shows he'll be exactly what Bush wants on court

WASHINGTON

President Bush is getting what he wants in the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito. The designated successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings as the perfect company man who is likely to deliver exactly the kind of conservative rulings Bush prefers.

The hearings last week reaffirmed Alito's 15-year record on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He will construe the Constitution and statutes narrowly, and sometimes literally, and waste no sympathy on people who come to court hoping for a more expansive or generous interpretation of their rights.

Thanks to a misdirected Democratic attack, Alito moved to the brink of confirmation without having to repudiate or modify the views on abortion or executive power that endeared him to Bush and the conservative movement. He will almost certainly move the Supreme Court to the right.

The man we saw in the witness chair over three days was exactly as advertised. He is a highly intelligent legal craftsman, thoroughly schooled in Supreme Court precedents. He should be able to hit the ground running for the remaining months of the current court term.

What we did not see was the rich appreciation of American history and tradition that illuminated Chief Justice John Roberts' commentary on legal issues when he was before the Judiciary Committee a few months ago. Where Roberts appeared to be enjoying his repartee with the senators, Alito approached the hearings with a grim, thin-lipped stoicism - as an ordeal he was determined to endure.

Whatever slim chance the Democrats had of defeating his nomination - and it was never really plausible - disappeared on the second day of questioning, when the liberals focused on Alito's membership in that controversial Princeton University alumni organization and on his failing to recuse himself in a case involving the Vanguard investment firm.

By shifting the focus from his judicial philosophy to his personal character, the Democrats set up Alito to play to his strength.

However aggrieved Sen. Ted Kennedy felt about Alito forgetting his promise to recuse himself on any matters involving Vanguard, where the judge had an investment account, the implicit suggestion that Alito had a financial conflict of interest was exactly what the judge called it - "preposterous."

Similarly, it was a reach by Kennedy and others to tar Alito with the obnoxious anti-black and anti-woman views expressed by some in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton organization he had listed on a 20-year-old resume.

No one who has read any of the endorsements of his character from dozens of his associates is going to believe Alito is a crook or a bigot. When Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed his outrage at the suggestion and the nominee's wife burst into tears, Alito became the sympathetic character in this drama.

And therein lies the irony of this hearing. At no point that I heard did Alito express sympathy for the men and women who came to his court looking for help - and were turned away. Sen. Dick Durbin asked him about some of those people.

One was a black man convicted of murder by an all-white jury sitting in a courtroom where local prosecutors had eliminated all black jurors in five consecutive murder trials in the space of a year. Alito, dissenting from a verdict overturning the conviction, wrote that the makeup of the jury was no more significant than the fact that "five of the past six presidents of the United States have been left-handed.''

Durbin asked why he had used an analogy that his fellow judges had called totally inappropriate and suggestive of a disregard of "the history of discrimination against prospective black jurors and black defendants.''

Alito responded, "Well, the analogy went to the issue of statistics and the use and misuse of statistics and the fact that statistics can be quite misleading. ... And that's what that was referring to. There's a whole - I mean, statistics is a branch of mathematics, and there are ways to analyze statistics so that you draw sound conclusions from them and avoid erroneous conclusions from them."

That perfectly bureaucratic response betrays not the slightest doubt about the human consequences of his reasoning.

Durbin cited other examples, the mentally retarded man who was harassed and almost raped by other workers, whom Alito denied a new trial because of the inadequacies of his lawyer's brief. And the same narrow construction led to other Alito dissents in cases of mine safety and environmental protection.

To be sure, Alito was able to cite decisions in which he ruled for individuals and against the government. But the pattern of his jurisprudence - and the workings of his mind - show Bush is going to get exactly what he wants from his latest Supreme Court pick, a company man.

David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.