The most remarkable thing about the Supreme Court’s opinions announced Monday was not what the justices wrote or said. It was what Samuel Alito did.
The associate justice, a George W. Bush appointee, read two opinions, both 5-4 decisions that split the court along its usual right-left divide. But Alito didn’t stop there. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, Alito visibly mocked his colleague.
Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the high court, was making her argument about how the majority opinion made it easier for sexual harassment to occur in the workplace when Alito, seated immediately to Ginsburg’s left, shook his head from side to side in disagreement, rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling.
His treatment of the 80-year-old Ginsburg, 17 years his elder and with 13 years more seniority, was a curious display of judicial temperament or, more accurately, judicial intemperance. Typically, justices state their differences in words — and Alito, as it happens, had just spoken several hundred of his own from the bench. But he frequently supplements words with middle-school gestures.
Days earlier, I watched as he demonstrated his disdain for Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the two other women on the court. Kagan, the newest justice, prefaced her reading of an opinion in a low-profile case by joking that it was “possibly not” the case the audience had come to hear. The audience responded with laughter, a few justices smiled — and Alito, seated at Kagan’s right elbow, glowered.
Another time, Sotomayor, reading a little-watched case about water rights, joked that “every student in the audience is going to look up the word ‘preemption’ today.” Alito rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Alito is best known for his antics at the 2010 State of the Union address, when President Obama criticized the Citizens United decision. While other justices remained expressionless, Alito adopted a sour look, shook his head “no” and appeared to mouth the words “not true.” At the various oral arguments I’ve watched over the past few years, Alito’s eye-rolling, head-shaking and other expressions of exasperation are a fairly common occurrence, most often when Sotomayor has the floor.
Alito’s latest irritability came, ironically, on a day when the main headline about the court was comity: Justice Anthony Kennedy read an unexpectedly modest decision on affirmative action that left some racial preferences intact and commanded a 7-1 majority. Many in the audience expected bigger decisions, on same-sex marriage and voting rights (former justices John Paul Stevens and Alito’s predecessor, Sandra Day O’Connor, were both in the house), but those contentious issues were held for another day.
Beyond the broad agreement on affirmative action, though, were three 5-4 decisions Monday, two read by Alito with a dry and clinical delivery. In the first, he announced that the court was rejecting a jury award for a woman who was disfigured and disabled by a drug that didn’t come with adequate warnings. Despite the “dreadful injuries,” Alito argued, siding with the drugmaker and throwing out an appellate-court ruling, “sympathy for respondent does not relieve us of the responsibility of following the law.”
The second case Alito read, one of two cases Monday limiting claims of workplace discrimination, rejected an African American woman’s complaints of a racially hostile work environment. Alito argued that the employer was not liable because, under Alito’s narrowed definition, the person doing the harassing did not qualify as the employee’s supervisor.
Other conservative justices share Alito’s views but aren’t quite so dour in expression. Antonin Scalia is caustic and even incendiary, but often funny. Chief Justice John Roberts can be droll. On the other side, Kagan has tried to make the court more accessible to a lay audience by giving chatty lectures from the bench rather than reading from her written opinions, which also have been playful. In an opinion she wrote this month on a transportation case, she made reference to the 1980s song “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone.
Even Ginsburg, no comedienne, can be colloquial and accessible. In her dissents Monday, she noted that an employee can avoid a harassing co-worker by telling him to “buzz off,” and she argued that “the ball again lies in Congress’s court to correct this court’s wayward interpretations.” She also invoked the self-deprecating quotation defining a legal mind as one that “can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking about the thing which it is attached to.”
Ginsburg was tart, even acidic — but she confined her objections to words. That kind of judicial restraint would benefit her junior colleague.