As Alito Hearings Approach, Groups Gearing Up to Weigh In, Pro and Con

Amid the Chanukah parties and the New Year festivities, the organized Jewish community has been gearing up to make itself heard on the next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Several Jewish organizations already have spoken out against Judge Samuel Alito Jr., who will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings beginning next week. Those groups and others are pushing key lawmakers to ask pointed questions about Alito’s record on abortion and the separation of church and state.

The goal is to prevent the feeling many in Washington had last year about the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts — that it was a fait accompli.

Alito is considered a more controversial jurist, with a longer record that has raised concerns among liberal groups, including the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union for Reform Judaism. Both organizations, who announced their opposition to Alito last year, are getting members in touch with key senators, pushing them to reject Alito.

Eleanor Katz, an NCJW leader in Pennsylvania, took the train to Washington on Tuesday to meet with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Katz met with the Jewish lawmaker for more than 15 minutes, and Specter assured Katz and others that he would raise reproductive rights and executive-power questions with Alito when hearings begin Jan. 9.

“Specter’s staff was very interested in the probing questions we want raised,” Katz said.

The organization plans to reach out to other lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a moderate Democrat and one of 14 moderates who likely will decide whether the nominee is filibustered. NCJW members plan to present the Connecticut offices of Lieberman and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) with a petition Thursday, asking them to oppose Alito.

The Reform movement also planned significant outreach to its members, asking them to call their senators.

“Part of our challenge is putting together for our people all the stuff that has come in in dribs and drabs over the past months,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “Every day there has been something in the press about Alito that has been of concern to our members and our activists.”

Both groups believe Alito’s nomination will get more attention than Roberts’ hearings last year. The key reason, they say, is because Alito was nominated to fill the vacancy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court’s most moderate voice.

Roberts’ hearings also were overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina, which reached the Gulf Coast one week before the session commenced.

“I have a different feeling of where Democrats in the Senate are right now,” Pelavin said, noting that several were gearing up for a “serious fight.”

Orthodox groups are expressing their own views on Alito. While not endorsing the nominee, the Orthodox Union sent a letter to Judiciary Committee members last week countering the view that Alito’s position on the separation of church and state is outside the mainstream.

“When people say a record like his is outside the mainstream on religion-state issues, it’s a distortion of the mainstream,” said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs. “We are very encouraged by Alito’s record.”

Diament also noted Alito has a “very vigilant understanding” of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, contrasting it with the view of Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored a much-maligned decision limiting an individual’s right to religious expression.

Agudath Israel of America, which announced its support of Alito last month, plans to send a letter to senators as well, but hasn’t planned an advocacy campaign.

“The course of events during the next two weeks might dictate that,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president for government and public affairs.

The Conservative movement has not spoken out on Alito. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism made headlines last year when it deemed Roberts qualified for office after evaluating his judicial record, which was a first for the movement. But the organization’s Social Action and Public Policy Committee crafted a new charter last month that says the group won’t routinely weigh in on nominees.

Lewis Grafman, UCSJ’s director of social action and public policy, said the committee hadn’t yet met to discuss Alito.

Several major Jewish groups have chosen not to give Alito an up-or-down vote, keeping to traditional positions to not endorse presidential nominations. But the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League are readying letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee with questions they want posed to Alito.

Jeff Sinensky, the American Jewish Committee’s counsel, said he expected the letter to be sent later this week. It will mirror a letter sent to lawmakers last year on Roberts, focusing on concerns about reproductive rights and the separation of church and state.

The Anti-Defamation League’s letter, obtained by JTA, questions Alito’s support for student-initiated prayer in public school graduation ceremonies, and his position on key civil rights issues.

“As an appellate judge, Judge Alito dissented in several cases where people were found to have been discriminated against on the basis of race in employment,” said the letter, signed by ADL President Barbara Balser and National Director Abraham Foxman. “Regarding discrimination based on gender and disability, Judge Alito’s dissenting opinion in several cases would have made it considerably more difficult for victims of gender and/or disability discrimination to prove their cases.”

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