WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have starkly different backgrounds and personal styles — and views on major issues.
O'Connor grew up on a remote ranch in Arizona. Alito is from New Jersey. She's a former politician, known for her social skills and feistiness. Alito, a former prosecutor, is reserved and scholarly.
The nation gets its first up-close look at Alito next week, when the Senate takes up his nomination with questions about abortion, religious liberty, capital punishment, presidential authority and other topics that put him at odds with the woman he would replace.
Senate Democrats today were considering a plan that could delay a committee vote on Alito's Supreme Court nomination for at least a week, but no decision had been made.
Expected to dominate Alito's confirmation hearings are questions about his position on abortion and to a lesser extent religion, two areas in which he could alter the Court's direction over the next generation.
"In those two arenas there's a huge difference," said Marci Hamilton, a former O'Connor clerk who teaches at Cardozo School of Law. "His instincts take him in different directions than her instincts take her."
O'Connor, the Court's first female member, supports Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a right to abortion; she has provided the fifth vote to strike down restrictions on the procedure.
As a judge, Alito voted to uphold abortion limits and as a government lawyer during the Reagan administration he outlined a strategy for chipping away at abortion rights with the eventual goal of overturning Roe.
On religion, O'Connor opposed prayer at public school graduations and football games and government Ten Commandments displays. Alito, in his rulings, favors a less rigid wall between church and state.
If confirmed, Alito would take the bench immediately and get to vote in several major pending cases, including a test of the Bush administration's plans for military trials for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The administration has also asked the Court to reinstate a federal ban on a type of late-term abortion, and justices will decide whether to hear an appeal from an American held as an enemy combatant for more than three years without traditional legal rights.
O'Connor has been suspicious of broad presidential power. She wrote in 2004 that "a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."
Alito has been more inclined to back the government and, as a Reagan administration lawyer, advocated strong executive authority.
The Supreme Court is undergoing a dramatic change, after 11 years with no turnover. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died in September and was replaced by John Roberts. Roberts had clerked for Rehnquist and is expected to vote similarly.
O'Connor's plans to retire, announced more than six months ago, and the fight over Alito's nomination have been more theatrical, because of the precarious balance on many issues and her role as a moderate tiebreaker. Many liberal groups are opposing Alito's nomination.
"The court has had 5-4 decisions in the past, but never with such frequency on such fundamental matters," said William Van Alstyne, a Supreme Court expert at the College of William and Mary. "Sandra Day O'Connor has held the pivotal position. Anyone is a distant second to Justice O'Connor."
Roger Goldman, a Saint Louis University law professor, said that O'Connor "was focused on what decisions do to real people, not highfalutin constitutional theory ... very human." Alito appears to have a more abstract approach, he said.
Other subjects that often turn on O'Connor's vote include the death penalty, campaign-finance limits, affirmative action and discrimination.
Alito, on the bench, has been unwelcoming to claims of discrimination and the appeals of immigrants trying to avoid deportation.
O'Connor, who suffered sex discrimination after graduating from Stanford Law School and being offered law-firm positions as a legal secretary, has voted to allow discrimination lawsuits.
Her record in immigration cases was mixed, although in 2001 she joined the liberal members in a 5-4 decision that said immigrant criminals with no country to accept them cannot be jailed indefinitely.
Ronald Rotunda, a George Mason University law professor, said any shift at the court will be gradual. Alito, in his 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has been known for writing narrow, cautious decisions.
"I doubt we're going to wake up and find the world dramatically different because of Alito," said Rotunda. "A justice makes a difference, but over years instead of in a majestic instance."