Senator Edward M. Kennedy looked skeptically at the federal judge. It was Nov. 15, 2005, and Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was seeking Senate confirmation for his nomination to the Supreme Court, had just assured Mr. Kennedy in a meeting in his Senate office that he respected the legal precedent of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision that legalized abortion.
“I am a believer in precedents,” Judge Alito said, in a recollection the senator recorded and had transcribed in his diary. “People would find I adhere to that.”
In the same conversation, the judge edged further in his assurances on Roe than he did in public. “I recognize there is a right to privacy,” he said, referring to the constitutional foundation of the decision. “I think it’s settled.”
But Mr. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and longtime supporter of abortion rights, remained dubious that November day that he could trust the conservative judge not to overturn the ruling. He brought up a memo that Judge Alito had written as a lawyer in the Reagan administration Justice Department in 1985, which boasted of his opposition to Roe.
The exchange has come to light as Democrats remain enraged about Justice Alito’s opinion, and as many Americans question the legitimacy of the conservative court. In a Gallup poll released last month, 58 percent of Americans said they disapproved of the job the Supreme Court was doing.
In a case similar to Mr. Kennedy’s, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who supports abortion rights, said she felt betrayed by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who in seeking her support as a court nominee in 2018 persuaded her that he was no threat to Roe. Ms. Collins voted to confirm him. Four years later, he sided with Justice Alito to overturn the ruling.
“I feel misled,” Ms. Collins said in an interview in June. Justice Kavanaugh had told Ms. Collins, according to contemporaneous notes taken by multiple staff members in the 2018 meeting, to “start with my record, my respect for precedent, my belief that it is rooted in the Constitution and my commitment to the rule of law.” He added that “I understand precedent and I understand the importance of overturning it.”
Some longtime court watchers say that nominees like Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Alito are more guilty of selective truth-telling than lying, and that if justices say they believe in precedent, it should not be considered absolute.
“A listener could easily but wrongly infer that Roe would be safe before a Justice Alito, as Alito would certainly know,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University’s School of Law who specializes in legal ethics and reviewed the segments from Mr. Kennedy’s diary. “Alito would also know that a listener would be misled. No serious court watcher can doubt that what Alito said in Dobbs he deeply believed in 2005. And long before then.”
“Ted Kennedy: A Life” covers the liberal senator’s 77 years from birth to death, and the exchange with Justice Alito is in a section on President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court appointments. The diary has a fuller account of the exchange than is in the book, including this segment:
“I believe that there is a right to privacy. I think it’s settled as part of the liberty clause of the 14th Amendment and the Fifth Amendment,” Mr. Kennedy quoted Judge Alito as saying. Mr. Kennedy continued with this recollection of Judge Alito’s words: “So I recognize there is a right to privacy. I’m a believer in precedents. I think on the Roe case that’s about as far as I can go.”
“We’ve got statements that you’ve got these views,” Mr. Kennedy countered, according to the diary.
“Those are personal,” Judge Alito said, by Mr. Kennedy’s account. “But I’ve got constitutional responsibilities and those are going to be the determining views.”
Judge Alito did not seem to go so far in his confirmation hearings two months later, in January 2006. He was pressed then by senators on whether Roe was settled law but would not say. “It is a precedent that has now been on the books for several decades,” he said. “It has been challenged. It has been reaffirmed. But it is an issue that is involved in litigation now at all levels.”
Mr. Kennedy kept a diary from the time he was a child, and often during his years in public office he would speak into a tape recorder while on trips to Vietnam, after meetings with American presidents or in sessions with his fellow senators. Transcriptions were made and stored at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
When Mr. Kennedy needed to refresh his memory, whether for interviews with reporters or historians, or for his own oral history projects, his staff was assigned the job of combing the diaries and preparing briefing material. The diary entries for his meetings with Justice Alito were included in a briefing book prepared for the senator for an oral history session on Supreme Court nominations.
An aide to the senator provided a copy of the briefing book for use in “Ted Kennedy: A Life.” There are no announced plans to open, or publish, the senator’s diaries themselves.
A July 21, 2005, diary entry from the briefing book contains an exchange between Mr. Kennedy and another judicial nominee, John G. Roberts Jr., now the chief justice, who was seeking the senator’s support.
Mr. Kennedy began with a cry from the heart. He told Judge Roberts that American history was an unfolding saga, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the enactment of the civil rights, voting rights and immigration legislation of the 1960s to more recent struggles to secure the rights of women, disabled people and gay Americans. Through it all Mr. Kennedy said the country had progressed in one direction toward freedom and equality.
“That has to be our continuum,” he told Chief Justice Roberts. Without it, America would be “a lesser country, a lesser land.”
The opposition was always rooted in “hostility and suspicion and, in many cases, bigotry,” Mr. Kennedy said. The man who would be the new chief justice would have to take a side. “This is the real question for you, whether you’re going to be a part of this whole movement for progress, or if there’s going to be a retrenchment.”
The nominee was wary, Mr. Kennedy reported in his diary: “I didn’t feel I was making much progress.”
He took another tack, trying to connect with the nominee over their shared Roman Catholic faith. The judge opened up a bit, saying that his faith was “something more powerful and bigger than myself” and “a guiding hand in terms of my life.”
“I said my philosophy is motived by the Beatitudes and by Matthew 25:40 about the ‘least of these,’” Mr. Kennedy recounted. But that brief connection failed and their talk drifted off to Ireland, where the nominee’s family had a home not far from the senator’s own ancestral fief. (A spokeswoman for the court said Chief Justice Roberts had no comment.)
“He’s bright and smart and compelling,” Mr. Kennedy recalled. But “about where we are” as a country, “he didn’t want to get into that at all. He’s very cautious.”
Mr. Kennedy ended up voting against Chief Justice Roberts, too.
John A. Farrell is an American historian and the author of biographies of Tip O’Neill, Clarence Darrow, Richard M. Nixon and Edward M. Kennedy. Previously he was a White House correspondent and Washington editor for The Boston Globe.