ALITO'S JOURNEY: Going Against the Liberal Tide

A Search for Order, an Answer in the Law

By Dale Russakoff and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 8, 2006

It was May 3, 1971, the crest of the antiwar movement, and Washington was clogged with thousands of denim-and-fatigues-clad protesters demanding an end to the Vietnam War. Blocks from the Capitol, but far from the action, a handful of Princeton University undergraduates in sport coats found themselves in the wood-paneled chambers of Justice John M. Harlan.

Most saw the visit as a detour from their real purpose: to meet generals, lawmakers and diplomats and debate the justness of the war. One young man even dozed off.

But not Samuel A. Alito Jr. Harlan was the one person he wanted to meet when Princeton's politics society arranged the trip. Now the clean-cut young man with dark-rimmed glasses was transfixed by the justice whose dissents from landmark liberal rulings of the Supreme Court had become his guideposts.

"The rest of us didn't grasp Harlan's significance," said George Pieler, then president of the politics society. "The only reason I did was that Sam had told me."

Years later, Alito would write that his distress over the court's liberal activism under Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1960s had propelled him to study constitutional law. Along the way, he would embrace Harlan's view that the court was usurping power that the Constitution had reserved for lawmakers.

At the time of the visit, this vision was hardly in vogue. After all, it was the Warren Court that had stepped in when legislators would not and declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

But Alito was not one to be swayed by fashion. As protest movements shook the world around him in the 1960s and 1970s, he held fast to the respect for authority he learned growing up in a New Jersey suburb in the 1950s.

Like many conservatives of his generation, Alito was inspired by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), stimulated by William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review, alarmed by the discord over the war in Vietnam and disenchanted with the liberal bias of college campuses.

But rather than turn to activism, he found in the study of law a framework for what troubled him. The early years of his journey were deeply private and intellectual. But he later found company, particularly in the Reagan Justice Department, incubator of scores of leading conservative legal practitioners, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

In articles today and tomorrow, The Washington Post will explore the forces, people and ideas that helped shape Alito and hastened his rise in the law. The articles are based on Alito's writings, government documents and more than 100 interviews, including the first extensive one with his family. Like other Supreme Court nominees, Alito did not comment.

The Senate confirmation hearings that begin tomorrow on President Bush's nomination of Alito to the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor represent a milestone not only for him but also for the conservative movement that grew up as he did.

Like Father, Like Son

He was born at mid-century to Italian Americans from the proud, immigrant enclave of Chambersburg in Trenton, N.J.

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