ALITO'S JOURNEY Groomed for the Bench

Proving His Mettle in the Reagan Justice Dept.

By Jo Becker and Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 9, 2006

The captains of the Reagan revolution at the Justice Department had two big concerns about a bookish new recruit named Samuel A. Alito Jr., who arrived in 1981: his blank slate as a conservative activist and his pedigree from a perceived bastion of legal liberalism.

"I wouldn't let most people from Yale Law School wash my car, let alone write my briefs," said Michael A. Carvin, a political deputy at the department.

Six years later, the revolutionaries saw Alito as one of them, tapping him to become U.S. attorney in New Jersey in 1987 and eventually, they hoped, a judge. Speaking on a New Jersey public affairs television program, the young prosecutor showcased the philosophy that had won the confidence of his Washington mentors.

Asked his opinion of President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, Alito gave a ringing defense of the conservative icon he said had been "unjustifiably rejected" by the Senate in one of the most ideologically polarizing nomination battles in decades.

"I think he was one of the most outstanding nominees of this century," Alito told Michael Aron of NJN News's "Front Page New Jersey" in a little-noticed 1988 interview. "He is a man of unequaled ability, understanding of constitutional history, someone who had thought deeply throughout his entire life about constitutional issues and about the Supreme Court and the role it ought to play in American society."

Confirmation hearings begin today on Alito's own nomination to the Supreme Court, and he is urging senators to focus on his record as a judge, rather than on the opinions he expressed as a Reagan administration partisan. "I don't give heed to my personal views. I interpret the law," he has said.

But Alito's mentors in the Reagan Justice Department carefully heeded those views when they identified him for advancement. Conservatives had struggled for a generation against a Supreme Court they believed was imposing liberal social policies in the guise of constitutional law. Bork was to have been their agent on the high court, but the department's leaders also moved aggressively to elevate like-minded conservatives throughout the judiciary.

Alito proved himself to top Justice Department operatives by distilling their agenda to reshape the nation's civil rights laws and overturn abortion rights into brilliantly analytical legal strategies. Much like his father, who had served both parties in a politically riven New Jersey legislature, he won the trust of the president's most ardent loyalists as well as the career civil servants who were often at war with them.

Alito left Washington an accomplished institutional player with friends in important places. His six years here positioned him to become a Supreme Court nominee as much as did the tomes of jurisprudence he accumulated in 15 years as an appeals judge and 30 years in the law.

Proving Himself a Conservative

Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds was frustrated. The White House had tasked him with enshrining into law Reagan's conservative policies on racial discrimination, abortion and school prayer. Standing in his way was the Office of the Solicitor General.

The solicitor general represents the government before the Supreme Court. While part of the Justice Department, the office is also known as the "10th justice" for its tradition of independently balancing duty to represent the president with respect for the court and its precedents.

Reynolds charged that many of the office's longtime staff lawyers were hostile to the president's agenda, and were actively undermining it in the guise of showing deference to the court. In response, Solicitor General Rex E. Lee started assigning the "agenda cases" to lawyers who were ideologically compatible with the administration.

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