Americans are bracing themselves for a divisive cultural battle, because on Jan. 9, the U.S. Senate will begin confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito, who was nominated as an associate Supreme Court justice by President George W. Bush in October, to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Unlike the relatively genteel John Roberts, however, who was easily confirmed as chief justice last year with only 22 Democratic “Nay” votes, most political analysts are predicting a tougher fight, along the lines of the 1987 Robert Bork nomination or the 1991 confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas.

In contrast, Canadian Supreme Court justices are named by the Prime Minister and are not even required to undergo questioning by Parliament.

Nicknamed “Scalito,” because of perceived similarities with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, Alito has already raised the ire of numerous liberal, pro-abortion and left-wing pressure groups, including People for the American Way, Alliance for Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL-Pro-Choice America.

Conservative pundit Robert Novak recently argued that, “Supreme Court confirmations have taken on the characteristics of American elections,” with millions of dollars spent by independent groups to either support or oppose a prospective justice. Judge Alito’s admirers include the 1.5 million-member strong, the Judicial Confirmation Network, pro-life Operation Rescue and long time conservative activist Gary Bauer.

Both sides in the Alito debate have already purchased internet advertising in the run-up to the hearings and neither side has shown any inclination to back down. Nan Aron, of the Alliance for Justice, claimed last year she would do “whatever it takes” to prevent judicial conservatives from becoming Supreme Court justices, adding: “You name it, we’ll do it,” when asked what her group would do to stop Alito.

Ralph Neas, the president of People for the American Way, called the debate “the most important and controversial Supreme Court nomination battle since Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.”

The stakes are high for both sides, as Supreme Court appointments can last decades and activist courts have often intervened into areas that were once the preserve of elected politicians. Alito was named after Bush’s initial choice, White House counsel Harriet Miers, was attacked by both liberals and conservatives over her views and perceived lack of qualifications for the job. Unlike Miers, nobody doubts Alito’s intellect or legal experience. Educated at Princeton University and Yale Law School, Alito was confirmed as a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1990 after working for the Reagan administration Justice Department and as a U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey.

Conservative and pro-life groups are generally satisfied with Alito’s judicial record on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1999, he and other justices ruled the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was not violated by a city hall Christmas display that contained a crèche, a menorah, secular Christmas symbols and a banner proclaiming the town’s dedication to diversity.

On the abortion issue, most court watchers believe Alito has been as pro-life as possible within the confines of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed a never-before-recognized right to the procedure. In 1991, Alito wrote a dissenting opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, arguing that a Pennsylvania law that required women seeking abortions to inform their husbands should have been upheld.

Alito wrote that the “Pennsylvania legislature could have rationally believed that some married women are initially inclined to obtain an abortion without their husbands’ knowledge because of perceived problems – such as economic constraints, future plans, or the husbands’ previously expressed opposition – that may be obviated by discussion prior to the abortion.”

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision to strike down the law, yet the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented and even approvingly quoted Alito’s reasoning.

Alito’s opponents became even more suspicious of him in November, when a released set of government documents included a 1985 letter written by Alito – then working in the Justice Department’s solicitor-general’s office – to apply for a vacant deputy assistant attorney-general position. “I am, and always have been, a conservative and an adherent to the same philosophical views that I believe are central to this administration,” wrote Alito, adding: “The Constitution does not protect a right to abortion.”

On the other hand, Alito ruled in 2000 that a New Jersey ban on partial-birth abortions was unconstitutional, as the law contained no exceptions to protect the health of the mother. Alito has said he has “great respect” for precedent, including Roe v. Wade.

Interestingly, Novak and other pundits mostly agree that Alito’s opposition to abortion alone probably will not be enough to sink his nomination, so some opponents are attempting to paint the conservative jurist as a “jack-booted thug” on criminal justice issues.