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Wednesday, November 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Alito: That was then

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito sought to distance himself Tuesday from staunchly conservative views he expressed 20 years ago, but some liberals and conservatives said they see the comments as the best indication yet of judicial philosophies he would bring to the bench. One liberal group said it will use the remarks in ads opposing Alito's confirmation.

In meetings with Democratic senators, Alito suggested that his comments in a 1985 job-application letter do not necessarily indicate how he might rule on sensitive cases.

In successfully seeking a promotion in the Reagan administration's Justice Department, Alito wrote that he was "particularly proud" of contributing to cases arguing "that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."

He added, "I personally believe very strongly" in such positions.

Senators who met privately Tuesday with Alito said he played down the remarks' significance by noting they are two decades old and by stating that a judge must rule according to the law, not personal sentiments.

"He said, first of all, it was different then," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters after meeting with Alito.

"He said, 'I was an advocate seeking a job, it was a political job, and that was 1985. I'm now a judge, I've been on the circuit court for 15 years, and it's very different. I'm not an advocate, I don't give heed to my personal views. What I do is interpret the law.' "

But several advocacy groups said the 1985 letter gives crucial insight into Alito's thinking because he outlined his conservative convictions in vividly personal terms, and because several of his key rulings as an appellate judge are in line with those beliefs.

"This memo is so significant because it conveys his legal views," said Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice. "He can't say he was just representing the views of a client or the government. These are his views, and therefore they are the best window into how he would rule if confirmed."

At least one prominent conservative who supports Alito agreed he should not be allowed to distance himself from the 1985 remarks.

"This idea that all the folks in the Reagan administration were all apparatchiks who didn't believe what they were saying and writing is surreal," said Bruce Fein, who was a Justice Department official during Ronald Reagan's presidency. "In Alito's memos, it's clear that he wasn't writing these things because he was forced to do so. He wrote them because he believed them."

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