What was said of the record of the new Chief Justice John Roberts applies equally, it appears, in the case of Judge Alito of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit:
The record...clearly documents his single-minded focus on limiting legal protections and opportunities for African-Americans, Latinos, alien children, people with disabilities, women, and others.
This describes the actual referent of the term "conservative" in U.S. political culture these days. The short overview of Judge Alito's record here and the longer overview here give some flavor of the man's moral and political commitments. Orin Kerr (Law, George Washington) suggests Judge Alito is more like the new Chief Justice, John Roberts, than like Antonin Scalia. (That assessment is confirmed by a former clerk at the end of this article--though bear in mind that Justice Scalia wrote a far better opinion on the most important issue before the Court in recent years than most of the liberals and moderates. Justice Scalia's commitment to "original meaning" (not original intent) is a double-edged sword.) Note that fifteen years of service on the Federal Bench has not seemed to temper his conservative activism in any measure.
Let us recall the words of Judge Posner, an honest man:
I don't object to the fact that Senators are concerned about the ideology of judicial candidates; the President is concerned, so why shouldn't the Senators be? Anyone who is realistic about the American judicial process knows that ideology affects decisions, especially the 'hot button' decisions that engage the attention of politicians; and Senators are politicians.
While some number of cases that reach the highest stages of appellate review--namely, the U.S. Supreme Court--will demand only technical legal skills for their resolution, a significant number will, as Judge Posner correctly notes, demand moral and political judgment, and thus will engage the "ideology" of the judge. Every grown-up knows this, of course, which is why there is such a fierce political battle over the appointment of someone who will, on a range of issues, act as a super-legislator. I assume no Democrat would vote for Bush or Alito for President; there is no reason, then, why they should vote for him as a super-legislator.
As usual, Pharyngula cuts to the chase:
Samuel Alito is a polyp sprouting from the diseased colon of the Republican party. I don't care if he's kind to his family, has a wonderful sense of humor, or refrains from branding women with an iron in the shape of an "A"—his political lineage is unambiguous, and that makes him a scabrous chancre not suitable for the office. He's a last-gasp representative of an absolute failure of an administration, the final ghastly moan of a set of bankrupt political policies that are utterly wrong for our country. He must be opposed. Sign on to MoveOn's petition.
On the other hand, there is the hopeful tale told by my colleague Scot Powe in The Warren Court and American Politics (Harvard University Press), and echoed in the work of other political scientists and students of the Supreme Court, according to which the Court is not an initiator of social and political changes, but simply the reflection of them in society at large. Perhaps this is right; if it is, there is less at stake than may appear in these confirmation battles, and the super-legislature may be closer to the mirror-legislature: if its decisions are cruel and reactionary it is because the society as a whole is cruel and reactionary. Time, as always, will tell.
UPDATE: Useful analysis by Jack Balkin (Law, Yale) of what the confirmation of Judge Alito to the Supreme Court is likely to mean in a number of contested areas.