Tuesday’s vote approving the nomination of Samuel Alito LAW ’75 to the Supreme Court divided the Senate Judiciary Committee neatly along party lines, a split that does not necessarily reflect the divergent sentiments about the nominee among students and faculty at Yale Law School.
The committee voted 10-8 in favor of Alito, setting up the final stage of the confirmation process — a vote by the full Senate. All 10 Republican committee members, including committee chairman Arlen Specter LAW ’56, R-Pa., recommended Alito for a seat on the nation’s highest court, while the eight Democrats on the committee voted against the nominee. Several members of the Yale law community — including professor and former Dean Anthony Kronman LAW ’75, who testified at the confirmation hearings — said their views on Alito’s approval have been influenced by assessments of his credentials rather than partisan divisions.
Kronman, who first met and befriended Alito while the two were at Yale Law together, spoke in support of Alito’s nomination on Jan. 13, the final day of the confirmation hearings. As a Democrat backing Alito, Kronman said he was disappointed that Tuesday’s vote was split down party lines.
“I certainly understand the enormous political pressures on the senators to either support or oppose, but I would have hoped that some perhaps on both sides had risen above the political fray and evaluated the candidate independent of their own partisan commitments,” Kronman said. “That’s very hard to do, but the Supreme Court [and] the courts generally are the one institution in our society where at least the ambition to a kind of non-partisanship seems both reasonable and desirable.”
But Yale Law professor Ronald Sullivan, who also testified before the Senate committee on the last day of hearings, expressed a more negative view of Alito. He said the nominee’s Fourth Amendment record of search-and-seizure cases demonstrated a disregard for individual rights.
Sullivan said the senators, though respectful of his comments, had largely decided their votes by the time of his testimony. Sufficient votes appear to exist for Alito’s confirmation as the court’s next associate justice, Sullivan said.
As of Tuesday, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., was the only Democrat who had publicly pledged to support Alito in the full Senate vote.
Ian Bassin LAW ’06, a founder of the group Law Students Against Alito, said he was disappointed by Tuesday’s vote. His group will respond by continuing to emphasize their opposition to Alito, Bassin said, though Alito’s confirmation by the Senate appears likely.
“We’re going to reiterate our opposition,” Bassin said. “I think the vote is unfortunate. I think the President used an opportunity to nominate someone who could have united the country and instead chose someone who would divide it. I think it would be highly unlikely for him not to be confirmed.”
But Emil Kleinhaus LAW ’02, a member of the steering committee for Yale Law Students and Alumni for Alito, said the members of his group are confident in Alito’s ability to serve as a fair justice. He said any assertions of Alito’s radicalism are unsubstantiated.
“The group of Yale Law graduates and students who have supported Judge Alito’s nomination believe that he is likely to be a fair justice and a justice who will apply the Constitution strictly rather than based on his personal beliefs, as he said in the hearings,” Kleinhaus said. “To the extent that people are saying that he is going to be ‘radical,’ that’s based on pretty flimsy, stale evidence from a long time ago.”
Yale Law professor and Alito classmate John Pottenger LAW ’75 said he is glad that Alito was recommended to the full Senate, despite the split vote.
“I am pleased that he was voted to be recommended onto the Senate floor, and I’m disappointed that it was a party-line vote,” Pottenger said.
The strong opposition to Alito’s approval by Senate Democrats — compared to the weaker resistance during Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ confirmation in September — reflects the fact that Alito would fill a vacancy left by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. O’Connor, in contrast to former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, has been widely perceived as one of the more centrist judges on the court, Binder said.
“Clearly, it shows quite different views on Alito based on one’s party,” Binder said. “The party-line vote is in one sense a reaction to different views of what Alito will be like on the court, but also the vacancy for which he is being appointed.”
The partisan vote for Alito in the committee does not reflect well on the state of American politics, but Alito’s successful confirmation and Roberts’ presence on the court could serve Democrats by compelling them to work harder, said Michael Horowitz LAW ’64, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“There’s a kind of partisan stridency that is alarming, and I think the Alito vote is a reflection of that,” Horowitz said. “Anytime anyone has power, they hate to give it up. Sometimes if you’ve got unearned power, it’s very healthy to give it up. It’s better for parties to earn what they get.”
The full Senate will begin discussing Alito’s confirmation today. A vote could come as early as the end of the week, although it may not occur until next week, a Senate spokesman said.