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A Specter of Himself

Pennsylvania's pro-choice moderate Senator sells out

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In retrospect, there was something a little desperate about the Jan. 11 "Rolling Justice" protest held at the United Steelworkers building Downtown. On hand were activists representing more than 30 organizations opposing the nomination of Samuel Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court -- a testament, of sorts, to Alito's record as a jurist. Only a real judicial workhorse, after all, could piss off so many groups of people.

Women's groups noted that, as an appeals-court judge and a lawyer in the Reagan White House, Alito had been a strident opponent of abortion rights. Labor activists warned that his rulings consistently favored corporations. Environmentalists cautioned that his judicial philosophy endangered many environmental-protection laws. And as gay activist Champ Knecht argued, "This is a man who has said one of the reasons he became a lawyer is he felt dissatisfaction by some decisions of the Warren Court" -- which ushered in some of the nation's most lasting civil-rights decisions.

Still, the odds seemed stacked against this coalition. For one thing, no one told the outside world about the event. The only media present were a camera crew from WTAE, who left after the first speaker finished, and an intrepid City Paper correspondent. (And by "intrepid" I mean "lucky enough to know someone who mentioned the gathering by accident.")

More importantly, if Alito is confirmed, it will be with the help of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter -- a pro-choice moderate whom many in the room once counted on, and whom some even helped to re-elect.

On Jan. 11, activists were still hoping for the best. Kim Evert, who heads Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, could only say "It's hard to know" how Specter would handle Alito's nomination. "He's promised us that he's going to be very tough." Other activists noted hopefully that the Republican Majority for Choice, a group of pro-choice GOP activists which boasts Specter as a member, had opposed Alito. And less than two years before, some Pennsylvania Democrats pondered changing their party registration so they could vote for Specter in the 2004 primary -- just so he could fend off a challenge from a pro-life conservative, Pat Toomey.

But Toomey himself couldn't have staged a more convivial reception for Alito than the one Specter gave. Among other things, Specter took the unusual step of having Alito's fellow judges testify about what a swell guy Alito is. As The New York Times pointed out, that invitation "brushes up against" ethical guidelines that assert "judges should not testify voluntarily as character witnesses."

Days later, Specter announced that he was supporting Alito.

Asked to explain his decision on the Jan. 15 ABC This Week, Specter said Alito "has given strong assurance of his reliance on precedents." How reassuring: a judge who relies on precedents. Maybe next time around, Specter will credit a judicial nominee for having a law degree, or good penmanship.

You'd have thought Specter would be equally disturbed by Alito's apparent disdain for government checks and balances. In recent weeks, after all, Specter has expressed alarm over stories about how the Bush administration has apparently wiretapped U.S. citizens without seeking a court order. Specter has said that such behavior "can't be condoned."

Yet Specter is poised to confirm a Supreme Court justice who, as a lawyer and a judge, has condoned such behavior.

Early on in his Senate testimony, Alito blandly offered that even the president isn't above the law. So Pittsburghers may have been surprised a few days later to see local headlines like: "Alito: President can very rarely break law." Alito opined that the Constitution gives the president broad war powers, and so if Congress interfered with those, in some cases "it would be justifiable for the president … not to abide by a statute passed by Congress."

But hey, if the president does decide to break the law, at least we can still count on Arlen Specter to hold some more hearings. The White House, you can bet, is shaking in its shoes.

The "Rolling Justice" activists are already planning a demonstration at Specter's Downtown office (scheduled for Jan. 17, as this issue went to press). But Alito seems bound to roll right into the Supreme Court. Specter, meanwhile, is bound to lose his next re-election bid. Assuming there's any justice, that is. And thanks to Specter, there's likely to be a lot less.

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