After giving several explanations as to why he participated in a 2002 case involving a mutual company with which he invests, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito, Jr. seems to have narrowed it down to one, according to accounts from The Washington Post.

The plaintiff in the case, a widow who claimed she should be entitled to money from her late husband's Vanguard retirement fund, had no lawyer to represent her.

"I just didn't focus on the issue of recusal," Alito, whom President Bush nominated on Oct. 31, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Usually, Alito said, the court clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit vets all judges for possible conflicts of interest before assigning cases. But pro se cases are handled differently, he said.

"If I had to do it over again, there are things I would have done differently," Alito said.  Although court rules would not require it, he said, he would have refrained because he aims to "go beyond the letter of the ethics rules and to avoid any situation where there might be an ethical question raised."

Claims of a conflict of interest center on a written promise made in 1990 to senators when he was appointed to the Court of Appeals from participating in "any case involving" the Valley Forge, Penn.-based fund shop.

At the time that the widow, Shantee Maharaj, appeared before Alito and two other appellate judges in the Pennsylvania courtroom, Alito owned between $390,000 and $975,000 worth of shares spread among 17 different Vanguard funds, according to 2002 financial disclosure forms. The panel ruled to dismiss the case.

After reading the disclosure statements of all three judges in the case, Maharaj filed a 2003 motion accusing Alito of a conflict of interest. In 2004, Chief Judge Scirica named a new three-judge panel to reconsider the case. That panel upheld the 2002 dismissal.

Although Democrats have not suggested Alito profited personally from the case, some have raised questions about his ethics.

"The point about all this," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has led the charge on this issue, is "so that interested parties can come before the courts are going to believe, not only in reality but in appearance, that they're going to get a fair shake."

Meanwhile, Republicans have defended the nominee. Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) called the conflict-of-interest claim "as phony as anything I have seen in my time round here," while Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told Alito "not to lose any sleep" over the issue.

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), meanwhile, asserted that questions about Vanguard are non-partisan. "I reject this idea," Feingold said, "that asking questions about an ethical issue is somehow a political game."

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