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A Phillies Fan With Blue-Chip Legal Stats

November 01, 2005|Janet Hook, Richard B. Schmitt and Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — When Samuel A. Alito Jr. graduated from Princeton University in 1972, he was clearly a young man on the move: His yearbook said he would "eventually warm a seat on the Supreme Court."

And, in fact, his legal career has seemed scripted to do precisely that.

The man President Bush has chosen to become the 110th justice of the Supreme Court has an Ivy League pedigree and a blue-chip resume. The son of an immigrant, at age 40 he became one of the youngest people ever to sit on a federal appeals court.

Alito also has compiled ideological credentials -- a stint in the Reagan administration, participation in the conservative Federalist Society, and court opinions on abortion and religion in public life -- that make him a darling of conservative activists, whose criticism helped force White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers to withdraw her nomination last week.

He also has enough similarities to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- Italian American roots, pronounced conservative views -- that he has been dubbed "Scalito."

But friends say the comparison is off-base, because Alito does not have the acerbic style that is Scalia's trademark.

"Yes, he's conservative and gives deference to statutes, but these opinions of Scalia are biting and critical," said Tom Neuberger, a veteran civil rights lawyer in Delaware, who has appeared before Alito about half a dozen times in recent years. "I've never seen that in his writing.... I don't think he has an agenda."

Some friends are less apt to compare Alito to Scalia than to John G. Roberts Jr., Bush's newly installed chief justice.

"There are about a half-dozen lawyers who are John's equal -- and Sam is one of them," said Charles J. Cooper, a lawyer who worked with Alito in the Justice Department during the Reagan years.

Although Alito's career and education were blueblood, his roots were unpretentious. His late father, Samuel, came to the United States from Italy as an infant. Alito was born in Trenton, N.J., and grew up in the state capital's suburbs.

His father was a schoolteacher and then director of New Jersey's Office of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan office that researches and writes legislation. Friends say Alito's father inspired him to pursue a career in public service. His mother, Rose, who is about to turn 91, also was a teacher.

At the White House on Monday, Alito -- who graduated as valedictorian from his local public high school -- credited his mother with instilling in him and his sister, Rosemary, who is a lawyer in New Jersey, a "love of learning."

"This was not a life of privilege," said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University, who worked with Alito at the Justice Department in the mid-1980s. "It was certainly not a life of deprivation, either. It was a family that took great pride in their children and wanted them to achieve educationally.... They saw that as an advantage they themselves did not have."

At Princeton, Alito was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society. He wrote his senior thesis on the Italian court system, based on research he conducted in Rome and Bologna in the summer of 1971, according to the class yearbook. The prediction that he would end up on the Supreme Court was disclosed Monday by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a fellow Princeton graduate, when Alito met with Senate GOP leaders.

"My real ambition at the time was to be the commissioner of baseball," said Alito, an ardent fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. "I never dreamed that this day would actually arrive."

At Yale Law School, Alito "was very much like the finished product," said Dan Rabinowitz, a former classmate, longtime friend and self-described liberal Democrat. "He was enormously intelligent, very disciplined and hard-working -- a little shy and not inclined to make small talk, unless you are a Philadelphia Phillies fan, in which case you are his friend for life."

Some classmates remember Alito as unassuming and not particularly strident about his political views. One says Alito's reserve in law school is reflected on the bench.

"He does not ask a lot of questions on the bench, because he only asks good questions," said Peter Goldberger, who practices law frequently in Alito's court. "That's the way he was in school: He would raise his hand twice a semester, and when he did, you'd be stunned at what came out of his mouth; he was so smart and incisive."

After graduation from law school, Alito clerked for Judge Leonard I. Garth, a President Nixon appointee to the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Alito has sat on that same court since 1990.

After his stint with Garth, Alito joined the U.S. attorney's office in Newark, N.J., where colleagues saw his personal shyness drop away in court.

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