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Originally published Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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ABA rates Alito "well qualified" for high court

Gearing up to do battle at congressional hearings next week, supporters and critics of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito squared off over...

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Gearing up to do battle at congressional hearings next week, supporters and critics of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito squared off over his federal court record Wednesday, with the American Bar Association (ABA) rating him "well qualified" to sit on the nation's highest court and liberal interest groups denouncing him as "far out of the mainstream."

In particular, liberal critics accused him of applying legal principles inconsistently during his 15 years as a federal appellate-court judge, using varying rationales to favor big business, presidential authority and causes supported by political conservatives.

"Judge Alito is in some respects to the right of Justice [Antonin] Scalia and is more like Justice [Clarence] Thomas," said Elliot Mincberg, general counsel for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, which released a report on Alito's record.

A separate analysis released Wednesday by the Alliance for Justice, another liberal group, estimated that in federal appeals cases where judges issued a split decision, Alito sided with the government 82 percent of the time and with individual plaintiffs just 18 percent. In those same cases, the group asserted, the majority of the federal judges ruled with the government 54 percent of the time and with individual plaintiffs 46 percent.

Seth Rosenthal, legal director for the Alliance for Justice, said the group's analysis "says something about how much Judge Alito defers to federal authority."

The ABA's decision to give Alito its highest rating was highlighted Wednesday by White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who said that "leading Senate Democrats have said in the past that the ABA rating is the 'gold standard' for evaluating judicial nominees."

The ABA's 15-member Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rates prospective federal judges, focusing on qualifications, integrity and judicial temperament. Alito had been rated "well qualified" in 1990 when he was nominated to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the case of Supreme Court nominees, the committee undertakes a more extensive examination of a prospective justice's background. Alito's "well qualified" rating for the Supreme Court — defined by the ABA as "reserved for those found to merit the committee's strongest affirmative endorsement" — was awarded unanimously, with one committee member not participating.

Stephen Tober, a New Hampshire lawyer who chairs the ABA committee, said the panel assesses nominees on their integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament — not on their views.

Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, dismissed the ABA rating, saying it "does not consider ideology or philosophy."

"We believe a nominee to such a powerful and important position must demonstrate a commitment to upholding Americans' constitutional rights, freedoms and legal protections, and to preserving the legal and social justice progress of the past 70 years," Neas said.

"Judge Alito's record unfortunately makes it clear that Americans cannot count on him to uphold their rights and freedoms — and that he has in fact actively sought to weaken them."

Conservative and liberal groups plan a new advertising push in advance of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, scheduled to begin Monday. In addition, a coalition of religious conservatives plans to hold a televised "Justice Sunday" rally in Philadelphia to promote Alito's nomination.

Stephen Tober's comments were reported by The Associated Press

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