Byline: Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas
The senate confirmation hearings for a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court are rarely a process of straightforward questions and answers. A potential Supreme Court justice cannot promise to vote a certain way on hot-button issues like abortion and school prayer--the hearings would degenerate into a crude bargaining process, with nominees trying to buy off the votes of senators by promising to vote their way. As a result, both sides tend to speak in code. When the Samuel A. Alito Jr. confirmation hearings begin Monday, TV viewers are going to need a translator.
For example, Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will probably begin by quizzing Alito about stare decisis (rough Latin meaning: "let the decision stand"), the judicial rule under which the Supreme Court follows its own precedents--until five or more justices want to junk one of them. A moderate, pro-choice Republican, Specter wants Alito to affirm the court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that created a woman's right to an abortion. So Specter's first question might be: "Judge Alito, could you tell us your philosophy toward stare decisis?" Translation: Can I get you to promise--or even hint--that you will leave the abortion ruling alone?
Judge Alito will try to appear completely noncommittal--without appearing to be unduly evasive. He will go on and on, as Chief Justice John Roberts did at his hearings last …