Alito spins on abortion, and a senator seems to buy it

He was just "seeking a job" then. But what is he doing now?

Published November 15, 2005 6:48PM (EST)

Samuel Alito is on Capitol Hill today, trying to explain away a document he wrote in 1985 in which he seemed to say that he "personally" believed "very strongly" that the Constitution provides no right to an abortion. In a meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein this morning, Alito apparently backed away from his prior comments. "It was different then," Feinstein said Alito told him. "I was an advocate seeking a job."

Which is all well and good, but what, exactly, is Alito doing now? Maybe he's not an "advocate" any more, but he's still "seeking a job," this time as one of the nine people who will determine whether abortion remains legal in much of the United States. Was he telling the truth to prospective employers in the Reagan White House in 1985, or was he just cozying up to them in the hopes of getting hired? Is he telling the truth to the U.S. senators who will vote on his confirmation now, or is he just telling them what he thinks they want to hear?

Whatever it is, it seems to be working. Feinstein, the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, seemed comfortable with Alito's spin as she met the press after their meeting. She said that she believed he was sincere. And she said that he assured her, "I don't give heed to my personal views. What I do is I interpret the law."

But this "personal views" argument is a little slippery, and Feinstein should know better. It's one thing to say that you think abortion is wrong, but that you won't let your "personal views" sway your thinking about what the Constitution does or doesn't mean. But that's not what Alito has done. What he suggested in 1985 was that he thinks that the Constitution doesn't protect abortion rights. That may be his "personal view," but it's not his "personal view" about the morality of abortion. It's his "personal view" about what the law is. It's how, at least in 1985, Alito "interpreted the law."

Feinstein seemed anxious to move past the question -- with Iraq, Democrats may think they have bigger fish to fry just now -- and she said that what matters is what Alito says "on the record" when his Senate hearings begin in January. Maybe that's right, but maybe that doesn't matter all that much, either: As we've noted before, Alito hasn't exactly been faithful to promises he made to the Senate the last time he was "seeking a job" there.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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