Alito Has Kept His Politics to Himself
Samuel A. Alito Jr. got his first job in a courthouse because of his father, who had made a lasting impression on a federal judge years earlier.
If Alito ascends to the Supreme Court, it again may be due in part to the lasting influence of his late father, a researcher for the New Jersey Legislature who was known for his penetrating mind and exemplary work -- but also for never discussing his personal politics.
The elder Alito “knew politics up and down,” said a former co-worker, Albert Porroni. But he said that Alito never so much as hinted at his views on the events then roiling the political landscape, including the Vietnam War, Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation.
Those who know President Bush’s latest Supreme Court nominee speak in similar terms of a man who has impressed colleagues at every stop in his legal career and rendered judicial opinions that mark him as a conservative -- even while disdaining any label and keeping an almost allergic distance from discussions of ideology or politics.
Former colleagues praise Alito’s legal acumen and quiet affability, but describe him as essentially apolitical. He is registered as a Republican in West Caldwell, N.J., but Federal Election Commission records dating to 1983-84 show no campaign contributions in his or his wife’s name. Even longtime neighbors said he was so reticent that some on the block didn’t know he was a judge.
“Summertime, in the backyard, we would have barbecues and would never, ever talk about anything involving his work or politics,” said Alex Panzano, who lives across the street from the Alitos in the Newark suburb.
Avoiding controversy has practically become a prerequisite to succeeding as a Supreme Court nominee. But Alito, 55, has taken such reticence to a new level.
As Bush said, Alito may be the most experienced nominee in 70 years. Yet despite a long and voluminous record, Alito has carefully followed in the footsteps of his father, earning praise and higher positions with his keen intellect while always striving to separate his job from the politics swirling around it.
“Judges should be judges,” Alito said in an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger last summer, before he surfaced as a high court nominee. “They shouldn’t be legislators, they shouldn’t be administrators.”
Alito praised his mother when he was nominated Monday, saying that Rose Alito had instilled in her children a love of education. But those close to him say that his professional life has to a large degree followed the example set by his father, who died in the mid-1980s.
The elder Alito was brought to this country as a toddler by his Italian parents, and went on to earn a master’s degree from Rutgers University. A neighbor recalls Rose telling of how Sam Sr. would copy by hand the contents of textbooks he couldn’t afford.
He taught public school before taking a job with the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan research and advisory body to the state Legislature. He went on to become director of the office.
Porroni, who now serves as director of the same office, described the Supreme Court nominee’s father as professorial in demeanor -- a man with a thick shock of white hair who smoked a pipe and studied every subject in earnest.
In the 1970s, there was a legal challenge to the state’s redistricting system, and Alito Sr. was called as an expert by the court because he was seen as objective and deeply knowledgeable about how the legislative districts were apportioned.
His precise testimony impressed the presiding judge in the case. Judge Leonard I. Garth remembered years later when the name “Alito” appeared on a stack of applications for a clerkship with him on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I wondered if there was a relation, and if there was, I certainly wanted to see him,” said Garth, who called the younger Alito in for an interview and promptly hired him. Garth did not inform the Yale Law School graduate why his application had jumped from a stack of more than 500 applications. But he gave the young man his start in the court where Alito now sits on the bench.
Throughout his career, Alito has strayed from his native New Jersey only for relatively brief periods.
He grew up in Hamilton Township near Trenton, on a quiet avenue with clipped shrubs and neighbors who shared a close-knit loyalty to each other and their street. Even in the social and political upheaval of the 1960s, the street was a cocoon of stability and tradition. Parents were strict; there was an emphasis on respect.
“We just knew not to try anything,” said Elaine Szul, who knew the Alito kids through elementary school and attended the senior prom with Sam. “He was always a reader,” Szul said, but she insisted that he was a “normal kid too” who didn’t flaunt his intelligence.
Patti Brusnahan was 8 years old when Sam and Rose Alito began building their house next door. Now 58 and still Rose’s next-door neighbor, Brusnahan described the family as close, hardworking and driven by education.
“They had books, books, books, books, books,” she said. “Education was so important.” Anytime a neighbor’s child did well at school, Rose Alito was the first to phone with congratulations and encouragement, Brusnahan said.
Unlike most mothers in the neighborhood, Rose Alito worked, first as a teacher and later as a principal at an elementary school. But the family always had meals together.
Suburban Hamilton was largely protected from the racial tensions that erupted in Trenton in the late 1960s, when there were riots and looting in the city. Victor McDonald, a member of the Steinert High School debating society along with Alito Jr., said that students were kept inside school buildings one day when the violence approached the school’s perimeter.
But in general, he said, “we didn’t have racial tension in our school, because it was pretty white.”
Alito was a talented debater and enjoyed the intellectual sparring involved. But even then, he recoiled from anything resembling inflexible ideology. His scrawled yearbook message to McDonald ribbed the classmate about his politics: “Who will replace you next year as SHS’ biggest reactionary? I doubt anybody can be as FAR RIGHT as you.”
Yearbook photos show Alito as a neat young man, natty in thin, dark ties and crisp, white shirts while most of his classmates wore shirt sleeves. He ran track, edited the school newspaper, played in the band -- passably by most accounts -- and debated.
Alito, who was valedictorian, excelled to such a degree that teachers at Steinert were forced to adjust their grading curves to exclude his marks. “Sam almost always scored 100, so the teachers responded by giving him an A and then determining the curve for everyone else,” McDonald said.
For college, he chose the lone Ivy League school in New Jersey. At Princeton, Alito majored in an elite public affairs program in the Woodrow Wilson School. He shunned the university’s selective private clubs and instead belonged to Stevenson Hall, a social and eating club that was more egalitarian because it was open to all students. He participated in the debate club.
After he drew a low draft number in 1969, he joined the ROTC, even though he already had a student deferment. He figured that that way, a friend remembered, he would at least enter the military as an officer instead of a grunt after college.
David Grais, his roommate, remembered one of Alito’s college pranks: After someone played a practical joke on him, he got revenge on the friend -- a regular scotch drinker -- by putting salt in a tray of ice cubes. His target, the story goes, had quite a few drinks before he noticed.
While at Princeton, Alito staked out a rare, provocative position while chairing a student conference on the “boundaries of privacy in American society.” He wrote a report that recommended the repeal of laws that made sex between gays a crime and urged new antidiscrimination laws for gays in the workplace.
After graduating from Princeton in 1972, Alito joined the Army Reserve before heading to Yale Law School. From there, Alito embarked on a career that would carry him rapidly up the federal government’s legal ranks.
Grais, now a New York lawyer, said Alito’s rise was aided by the fact that he never seemed interested in private practice. “He never had his eye on the revolving door between private practice and government,” Grais said.
After clerking for Garth, Alito served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Alito was named assistant solicitor general; over the next four years, he argued 12 cases before the Supreme Court.
Alito is perhaps best remembered during that period for a case he lost after stepping in at the last minute for a colleague who had become ill on the weekend before a Monday oral argument before the court. (A nearly identical tale was told about John G. Roberts Jr., the new chief justice, who also worked for the solicitor general. But Roberts won his case.)
It was “the one kind of heroic example that all of us will remember about Sam,” said Carter G. Phillips, a Washington lawyer who worked with Alito at the time. “Sam got two days’ notice that he was going to handle that argument, and did what all of us recognized was a spectacular job. It showed what we all knew: that Sam is a prodigiously hard worker.”
Later, Alito worked in the Justice Department office that provides legal advice to the executive branch. He became the office expert on legal ethics. He also helped vet judicial nominees -- including, in 1986, Supreme Court nominee Antonin Scalia -- the justice to whom he is sometimes compared.
It was a cloistered, if quietly powerful, existence. Then, near the end of the Reagan administration, Alito took a job that nothing in his resume seemed to foreshadow, when the position of U.S. attorney opened up in his native New Jersey in 1987. Friends say he was drawn by intellectual curiosity, a recognition of gaps in his credentials and a desire to return to his roots and be near his mother, who was widowed that year.
Far from the rarefied world of Washington, Alito became the unlikely leader of a streetwise office that took on mobsters, corrupt local politicos and savings-and-loan bandits. Some in the U.S. attorney’s office raised their eyebrows at the arrival of the intellectual from the nation’s capital. But he quickly established himself, colleagues said.
“Sam grew up in the rough-and-tumble world of Trenton politics as the son of Italian immigrants,” said Kevin J. McKenna, a lawyer in Newark who worked at the U.S. attorney’s office during Alito’s tenure. “He’s not over his head dealing with the mob or any other kind of crime. He’s tough, he’s driven, and no one I ever heard talked about him as a pointy-head.”
When an FBI agent was shot while interviewing a suspect in a motel room, Alito personally handled the two-week trial and won a conviction. His eagerness to take on the case endeared him to the prosecutors and FBI agents, although some chided him for grabbing what was widely regarded as a slam-dunk case. It was his only courtroom trial.
Alito also took the lead in one of the first terrorism cases in the country, prosecuting a reputed Japanese Red Army sympathizer who was picked up with homemade bombs in his car at a service area off the New Jersey Turnpike in 1988. The defendant didn’t dispute the charges, and the case never went to trial. But when the defendant challenged the sentence he received, Alito successfully argued the case before the federal appeals court, out-dueling the radical defense attorney William Kunstler.
But Alito operated mainly behind the scenes, making judgments on whether to file cases and leaving the trial work to his assistants -- including an aggressive young prosecutor he had lured away from the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan: Michael Chertoff, who would later succeed him as U.S. attorney in Newark.
The two complemented each other: Alito was the brainy and thoughtful strategist, strong on the law; Chertoff was the courtroom warrior. Chertoff is now secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
The low-key tone that Alito struck was in sharp contrast to the brash federal prosecutor operating across the Hudson River, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who used to parade handcuffed business tycoons accused of securities fraud in front of TV cameras.
“He was not a Giuliani-type who was going to march [perpetrators] up Wall Street,” said Paul Brickfield, a New Jersey lawyer who handled publiccorruption cases for Alito. “He was more concerned about the integrity of the process, and making sure things were done properly.”
Even defense lawyers said they found Alito to be reasonable and open to negotiation. “His door was always open, especially with high-profile cases,” said Jack Arsenault, a New Jersey defense lawyer.
The Alito era did suffer a measure of scandal and embarrassment. One of the prosecutors in the office was charged with faking death threats against herself in the course of a case against two Sikhs accused of being terrorists.
A mammoth racketeering case against 20 reputed mob figures also unraveled on Alito’s watch. The case already was being tried by the time he became U.S. attorney. A jury decided in favor of all of the defendants after 14 hours of deliberations after a trial that lasted nearly two years. Alito’s supporters say his reaction to the devastating verdict says a lot about him.
“He took full responsibility when it came down, and there was no reason for him to do that,” said Walter Timpone, a New Jersey lawyer and former prosecutor who used to work with Alito. “Sam did not point fingers. He just took the heat.”
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush nominated Alito to sit on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, where he has served for the past 15 years.
His personal life also came together at the office. In 1985, he married Martha-Ann Bomgardner, who had worked as a researcher in the U.S. attorney’s office when Alito was an assistant prosecutor.
Colleagues still joke that it was inevitable Alito would find romance in the legal book stacks. “He’s a library rat,” one former colleague said, “and he married the librarian.”
But the former federal prosecutor and librarian defy their professional stereotypes. “He’s a quiet guy,” said John Serra, 84, a neighbor of the Alitos who said the judge was almost always seen wearing a suit, even when in the backyard tossing baseballs to his son.
Bomgardner is said to be far more outgoing. Panzano said the Alitos came to his house across the street for dinner several weeks ago, soon after Bush had nominated Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. “After that happened, Martha [joked] that the only chance Sam had to be nominated to the court was if all nine of the justices died,” Panzano said.
The couple have two children. Laura, 17, is a star swimmer at James Caldwell High. Philip, 19, is a student at the University of Virginia.
For nearly 20 years, the Alitos have been members of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in nearby Roseland. They joined that parish because Alito’s sister, Rosemary, worshiped there, a neighbor said.
Bomgardner teaches religious education at the parish, and their children received the sacraments there. The family attends Mass weekly, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark.
About seven years ago, the Alitos bought a vacant lot in West Caldwell for $160,000. They built a two-story Colonial home that recently was valued at $1.6 million, the most expensive house on the block.
According to his latest annual financial disclosure report, Alito has no debt and an investment portfolio worth from $615,000 to $1.6 million. If confirmed to the high court, his annual salary would jump from $171,800 to a reported $199,000.
In a neighborhood of two-story ranch homes and Cape Cod-style houses built in the 1960s, the Alito house stands out both for its perch atop a steep driveway and its distinctive design. Neighbors playfully dubbed it the “king of the hill” house.
This week, a Halloween flag portraying Tweety Bird in a witch’s hat was flying outside the brick-and-stucco home, right next to an American flag and a banner from the University of Virginia.
In a brief interview, Alito’s wife introduced her prized springer spaniel as her “dog therapy dog.” Seven-year-old Zeus, retired from the dog show circuit, visits adult day-care centers to cheer residents, Bomgardner said.
Before politely closing the door, her only comment about her husband’s nomination was, “We’re very proud of Sam.”
This article was reported by Times staff writers Nicole Gaouette and Elizabeth Mehren in New Jersey and Greg Miller, Richard B. Schmitt, Faye Fiore and Janet Hook in Washington. It was written by Miller.
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Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s positions in some noteworthy cases:
1991, U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals; Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: Dissented from the ruling that struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring women who sought abortions to notify their husbands.
1993, 3rd Circuit; Fatin vs. Immigration and Naturalization Service: Wrote the majority opinion holding that an Iranian woman could establish eligibility for asylum in the U.S. by showing she would be persecuted in her native country because of gender, belief in feminism or membership in a feminist group.
1999, 3rd Circuit; Fraternal Order of Police vs. City of Newark: Wrote the majority opinion that Muslim officers could keep their beards. The city had made an exception for medical reasons but not religious ones.
1999, 3rd Circuit; ACLU vs. Schundler: Wrote the majority opinion that a Jersey City holiday display at City Hall with a creche, menorah and secular symbols of the holiday season did not violate doctrines of separation of church and state.
2005, 3rd Circuit: The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision that Alito had written upholding a 17-year-old death penalty in Pennsylvania; justices threw out Ronald Rompilla’s death sentence on the grounds that the accused killer had an ineffective lawyer.
1996, 3rd Circuit; Homar vs. Gilbert: Wrote the dissent that a state university didn’t violate the due-process rights of a campus police officer when it suspended him without pay after learning he had been arrested on drug charges.
1996, 3rd Circuit; United States vs. Rybar: In dissent, Alito said that the private possession of machine guns was not an economic activity and that there was no empirical evidence that private gun possession increased violent crime in a way that substantially affected commerce; therefore, he said, Congress had no right to regulate it.
2001, 3rd Circuit; Saxe vs. State College Area School District: Wrote the majority opinion overturning a public school district anti-harassment policy, saying the policy about what constituted harassment was contrary to the 1st Amendment.
2004, 3rd Circuit; Shore Regional High School Board of Education vs. P.S.: Wrote the majority opinion holding that a school district had failed to provide a high school student with a free and appropriate public education, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when it failed to protect the student from bullying by fellow students who taunted the student based on his lack of athleticism and his perceived sexual orientation.
1988 trial of Yu Kikumura: As U.S. attorney in New Jersey, prosecuted Kikumura, who was convicted of driving with homemade bombs on the New Jersey Turnpike with the intention of blowing up the Navy recruiting office in Manhattan.
Sources: Times research, Associated Press, CourtTV.com, SCOTUSblog.com. Graphics reporting by Vicki Gallay and Julie Sheer
Los Angeles Times
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