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The Nation

Alito Has Kept His Politics to Himself

The high court nominee followed his father's example of not sharing his opinions.

November 03, 2005|By Times Staff Writers

TRENTON, N.J. — 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.

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