The Nominee

Comparisons to Scalia, But Also to Roberts

By Michael Grunwald, Jo Becker and Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

On April 5, 1990, four days after Samuel A. Alito Jr. celebrated his 40th birthday, he enjoyed a cakewalk of a hearing on his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The Senate Judiciary Committee asked Alito only four questions -- just one more than its chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), asked Alito's 4-year-old son, Philip.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced Alito as "an accomplished and distinguished lawyer," a prosecutor who had spent his entire career in government service. Kennedy was even more lavish in praising President George H.W. Bush's nominee, and said he was "sure" Alito would be a successful judge. "In the absence of any large group complaining about your nomination," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), "it appears that you will have clear sailing."

Specter was right; Alito was unanimously confirmed. But 15 years later, another President Bush has nominated Alito to the Supreme Court, and the sailing no longer seems clear. The uncontroversial, apolitical public servant of 1990 is now being embraced and attacked as a staunch conservative. A shy, soft-spoken man who rarely displays much emotion about anything other than his family or his beloved Philadelphia Phillies is being hailed and reviled as the second coming of Justice Antonin Scalia, the caustic legal provocateur who also happens to be a Catholic, Italian American jurist from Trenton, N.J.

The real Sam Alito, according to the lawyers and other friends who know him well, is more like the second coming of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., but with a longer paper trail. They describe Alito as a studious, diligent, scholarly judge with a first-rate mind and a deadpan sense of humor, a neutral arbiter who does not let personal beliefs affect his legal judgments.

They say he inherited a commitment to unbiased professionalism from his father, who served as the New Jersey legislature's nonpartisan research director for a quarter century. They don't know anyone who isn't a journalist who actually calls him "Scalito."

On the left-of-center 3rd Circuit, Alito has written several dissents applauded by conservative commentators, from his argument that a federal ban on machine guns seemed unconstitutional to his opinion that a state law requiring most married women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion was not.

But even though Alito has been a member of the Federalist Society, and many of the "large groups" Specter mentioned in 1990 are mobilizing to fight his nomination, he was widely respected among liberals as well as conservatives before his judgeship. And some liberals who have known him for decades still say they admire the man, if not his opinions.

"I have no idea how he's voted on anything in the entire 30 years of our friendship . . . he's quite apolitical," said New York lawyer Daniel Rabinowitz, a liberal Democrat who attended Yale Law School with Alito, clerked with him on the 3rd Circuit and served with him as a federal prosecutor. "He's been a nonpartisan public servant in the tradition of his dad."

Like Roberts -- and unlike White House counsel Harriet Miers, whose nomination was withdrawn last week -- Alito followed a fairly traditional path to his nomination, attending Ivy League schools, clerking for a federal judge, working for the Department of Justice, and serving on the bench. Like Roberts, Alito has been touted as material for the high court for decades; even his Princeton University yearbook predicted that he would "warm a seat on the Supreme Court." According to classmate Victor R. McDonald III, the newspaper at Alito's high school newspaper forecast an even loftier future:

"Sam Alito defeats God in landslide election for ruler of the universe."

'Icon of Professionalism'

Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. was born on April 1, 1950, in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, a blue-collar Italian neighborhood in a hardscrabble industrial city. But he grew up in the suburb of Hamilton, and his parents were committed educators.

His mother, Rose, was an elementary school principal. His father, Samuel, was an Italian immigrant who became a high school history teacher and then the first director of New Jersey's Office of Legislative Services, a kind of Garden State equivalent of the Congressional Research Service. From the late 1960s until his retirement in 1983, he provided a wealth of public policy information to Republicans and Democrats, and he was respected on both sides of the aisle.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company