Hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court began today with leaders of both parties vowing to question him closely on abortion, the tension between civil rights and national security and the powers of the presidency.
Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Republican chairman and leading Democrat, respectively, on the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised the nominee they would give him a fair hearing before deciding how they would vote.
But the senators told Judge Alito he needed to convince them – and by extension the American people – that he deserved to sit on the highest court in the land. The hearings come at a crucial moment, for President Bush politically and for the evolution of the law. Mr. Bush has been hampered by declining public support for some of his policies, and his last nominee to the high court, the White House counsel Harriet Miers, had to withdraw amid criticism of her credentials and questions on whether she could be independent.
Moreover, abortion is far from the only legal issue of paramount importance that is likely to come before the justices. They may also be called upon to weigh the balance between personal liberty and national security, in particular how much authority a president should have in the age of terrorism to order the detention of people without formal charges.
“There is, I think, a heavy sense of drama as these hearings begin,” Mr. Specter said.