Alito Prized Wit, Not Politics; Clerks Held Varied Views

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Alito Prized Wit, Not Politics; Clerks Held Varied Views


Byline: Guy Taylor, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Two things are clear about how Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. has operated since his appointment to the federal appeals bench more than 15 years ago: His sense of humor is quiet and rich, and of the dozens of clerks brought under his wing, not all are conservatives.

In fact, a few voicing support of Judge Alito's Supreme Court nomination are liberals.

"During his 15 years on the bench, it appears that he did not surround himself with conservative ideologues by any means," says Susan Sullivan, a San Francisco lawyer who clerked for Judge Alito in 1990.

"I was not aware until this nomination process of the tremendous breadth of political affiliations of his law clerks," said Ms. Sullivan, describing herself as a liberal Democrat who is a pro-choice, feminist supporter of gun control and gay marriage and an opponent of the death penalty.

John M. Smith, who clerked for Judge Alito in 2001 and describes himself as a Republican, said he was not asked about politics during the job interview.

"If that was typical for how he conducted interviews, then I suppose it's not surprising that he would end up hiring clerks with a variety of political viewpoints," Mr. Smith said. "A good number of them are Democrats."

Judge Alito, 55, was nominated to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President George Bush. With degrees from Princeton and Yale, a career history as a Reagan-era Justice Department lawyer and later a U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, he was confirmed by unanimous consent in the Senate.

Senate hearings on President Bush's choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor begin Monday.

Like several of his former clerks, Mr. Smith, now a lawyer in Washington, recalls his experience working for Judge Alito as intense, but also as one where a good laugh or an inside joke might - in some cases literally - be around the corner at any turn.

Such was the case when a judge whose chambers are next door to Judge Alito's in the old court house in Newark, N.J., engaged in some extensive redecorating a few years ago.

As a finishing touch, the judge had placed "what looked like a pair of fake stone lions in the hallway just outside the doorway to her chambers," said Mr. Smith, declining to identify the judge who apparently then became the target of a bit of Judge Alito's dry humor.

"Shortly after that in front of the entry way to Judge Alito's chambers appeared two pink plastic lawn flamingos with their legs stuck into two box lids to keep them upright," said Mr. Smith.

"It happened the year before I got there, but the pink flamingos were still there and on display when I started," he said. "It just gives you an insight as to either his sense of humor or the type of humor he permitted, maybe even encouraged."

Jokes aside, Judge Alito is known for the seriousness with which he approaches cases.

Ms. Sullivan worked for him when he wrote his now-famous dissent in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, in which he argued in favor of allowing Pennsylvania to require married women to notify their spouses before getting an abortion.

She said Judge Alito's process for deciding cases was "the same irrespective of the subject matter."

"Every case involved broad discussion of all of the relevant issues," Ms. Sullivan said. "It was very much an open and thorough process."

For that reason, she said she "did not feel uncomfortable with the process in any of the cases" that crossed Judge Alito's desk during the year she worked for him.

"It is my belief based on having worked closely with him that he is not intent on advancing any political agenda. I really think that is evident from the range of results in his opinions," Ms. Sullivan said. "There are certainly what may be described as 'liberal' outcomes in his decisions.

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Alito Prized Wit, Not Politics; Clerks Held Varied Views
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