WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito said yesterday that he was ''unduly restrictive" in promising in 1990 to avoid appeals cases involving two investment firms and said he has not made any rulings in which he had a ''legal or ethical obligation" to step aside.
In a letter to Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Alito said a 1990 questionnaire he filled out for the panel covered his plans for ''initial service" as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
''I respectfully submit that it was not inconsistent with my questionnaire response for me to participate in two isolated cases seven and 13 years later, respectively," he wrote.
Alito issued the letter one day after all eight Democrats on the committee called for voluminous records involving a 2002 case in which Vanguard was a defendant. They pointed out that Alito had promised at the time of his confirmation to the appeals court seat that he would avoid cases involving Vanguard; Smith Barney; First Federal Savings & Loan of Rochester, N.Y.; and his sister's law firm.
Democrats addressed their letter to the chief judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and did not accuse Alito of bending his ruling to favor Vanguard. Instead, they raised possible conflict-of-interest concerns and said Alito had violated the promise he made to the committee 15 years ago.
Even so, the Democratic challenge prompted Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, to write Alito yesterday to suggest a quick response. ''I think it is important that the issues be addressed promptly, since a number of senators have expressed concerns," Specter advised.
Alito was officially nominated by the White House yesterday to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose judicial rulings have made her the swing vote on the Supreme Court on issues such as abortion and affirmative action. Alito, a 55-year-old New Jersey native, has won strong support from Senate Republicans and has elicited praise from several Democratic senators with whom he has met privately.
Confirmation hearings are scheduled for Jan. 9, and Wednesday's letter from Democrats on the panel marked their first organized challenge to his nomination.
Specter warned Alito in his letter that waiting to answer the conflict-of-interest questions would only allow ''your adversaries to speculate on this issue to the detriment of your nomination."
The senator said he thinks ''there has been no impropriety." But he added that ''we have seen issues which may be minor, unmeritorious, and even nonexistent proliferate into major controversies by those who are opposed for other reasons."
Alito responded within a few hours, suggesting that he knew the letter was coming or even that the White House had sought an invitation to respond to the issue. In the letter, Alito said he only invests with Vanguard and Smith Barney and does not hold any interest in the companies.
When he listed the companies in the 1990 questionnaire, ''my intention was to state that I would never knowingly hear a case where a conflict of interest existed," Alito said. ''As my service continued, I realized that I had been unduly restrictive."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, criticized Alito's response in a statement Wednesday. ''I'm troubled to learn that Judge Alito does not stand by his 1990 promise to recuse himself from any cases involving the Vanguard companies," Kennedy said. ''His letter raises serious factual questions, as well as questions of law and judgment."
In the 2002 case, Shantee Maharaj, who had lost a suit against Vanguard, sought a rehearing after learning that Alito held investments with the mutual fund company. She sought to have the ruling erased and Alito disqualified from further proceedings. Alito said yesterday that he did not believe he was required to disqualify himself on the basis of ownership of shares in a mutual fund, but ''voluntarily recused myself once my participation was called into question."
The White House and senators have said that there was a computer glitch that allowed the recusal problem to slip through undetected in the first place, but Alito only mentioned an oversight in the letter to Specter.
Alito's letter also said he decided a case involving Smith Barney, but added it did not fall under judicial conflict-of-interest guidelines. ''Smith Barney is my brokerage firm and I hold no interest in the firm itself," the judge said in the letter.
This came as liberal groups prepared for a new push against Alito after seeing some Senate Democrats virtually dismiss the possibility of a filibuster.
''Next week, the press, the American people will begin to hear a very different story about his record, his experiences, some of the judgments he's made," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, an organization steering a coalition of groups on the left.
Alito's nomination has been picking up steam since Bush announced his choice Oct. 31. Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, who met with the nominee yesterday, said Alito had demonstrated insensitivity during his time as a federal appeals judge, but added: ''You can't ignore that there's an abundance of talent in this individual."