On October 31, 2005 President Bush announced his nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. as the United States Supreme Court Associate Justice to replace the soon-to-be 75-year-old retiring Sandra Day O’Connor. Justice O’Connor has served as an Associate Justice since being nominated by President Reagan during September 1981.
Although the President of the United States has the sole authority to nominate federal judges, the United States Senate has the power to review, then either approve or reject those nominations. Once approved, judges can serve for life, until they decide to retire, or until they are impeached. However, judges can only be impeached under a few specific circumstances and only after a congressional impeachment process, which can be very time-consuming, therefore rare.
The Supreme Court is currently made up of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. Because the Supreme Court has the final say in contested cases, which are often hotly debated publicly and politically, the judges serving on the Supreme Court hold significant public and political power. Since there are only nine Supreme Court Justices and they serve such long terms, it is rare for a President and a Congress to have the opportunity to select a new Justice. When they do have that chance, they have the advantage of impacting legal policy far into the future – roughly 15 years on average. As such, nominations are seriously deliberated by those on both sides of important present and foreseeable issues. Only 75% of all Supreme Court nominations actually are confirmed.
The key issues being examined presently in relation to O’Connor’s replacement generally center around civil rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Fair Housing Amendments Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), voting rights, and abortion rights. Because the current nomination was made by a Republican president and will be confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate, civil rights activists and Democrats are wary.
According to White House documents, Alito was born during 1950 in Trenton, New Jersey. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and attended Yale Law School. He has served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in an appellate division and has argued several cases on behalf of the federal government in the U.S. Supreme Court. Later, he served the Reagan Administration in the Office of Legal Counsel as Deputy Assistant Attorney General. Afterward, he became a U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. Then, he was appointed as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit where he has participated in thousands of appeals and authored hundreds of opinions. In 1985, Alito married Martha-Ann Bomgardner, with whom he has two children.
In an Internet petition, ADA Watch called Alito “well outside the mainstream of legal and public opinion.” The group intends to hand-deliver the petition and is also urging disability-rights supporters to send letters to Senators and pass on information about the nominee’s record to others.
Despite his strong judicial background, opponents stress the following concerns:
• a 1985 memo in which Alito appeared to endorse the overturning of Roe v. Wade;
• a 1984 Justice Department memo Alito wrote expressing the view that the Attorney General should be immune from suit over illegal wiretaps, and indications that he supports the President and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) having authority to authorize warrantless eavesdropping;
• his activities toward expanding law enforcement powers while serving the Reagan administration; plus,
• his apparent disagreement with the electoral principle of one-man one-vote and the ability to challenge arbitrarily drawn legislative districts in federal court.
More specifically, the aging and disability community is concerned, because Alito’s rulings seem to suggest weak enforcement of specific laws that broadly address community and employment discrimination and further are the foundation for numerous other federal, state and local laws protecting the rights of individuals experiencing disabilities, according to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act are among the principle protections that the Bazelon Center alleges Alito opposes. They outlined their beliefs within a report analyzing the following:
• a 2000 ruling that Congress lacked the power to implement the unpaid leave portion of the FMLA;
• a 1999 finding that a disability-rights group lacked legal standing to sue the Department of Housing and Urban Development over failing to enforce its own regulations;
• a decision in 2002 that depression and sleep disorders are not covered by the ADA; and,
• his handling of cases that may imply his belief that the federal government does not have the authority to force states to comply with anti-discrimination laws.
The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law is joined by numerous other ADA Watch coalition partners opposed to Alito, including the Alliance of Disability Advocates, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), National Association of Rights Protection and Advocacy (NARPA), National Council on Independent Living, and World Association of People with Disabilities.
US Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter will preside over Alito’s confirmation hearing scheduled to begin January 9.
More information from the Bazelon Center report, can be found on the Internet at www.bazelon.org/takeaction/alitosrecord.htm In addition, ADA Watch has information, a petition of opposition, and a sample letter of opposition to Senators located at www.adawatch.org/ Or, contact your United States Senate representative directly. To find your elected representative and the associated contact information, visit: www.senate.gov/general/contact_information or call 1-800-FED-INFO (1-800-333-4636).