Samuel A. Alito, Jr.
- Early Years
- On the Bench
- Supreme Court Record
, is the 110th person appointed as justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, an honor that is the capstone of a distinguished career in public service. Compared to current justices, Alito’s background is noteworthy for its emphasis on criminal law. Alifelong Roman Catholic, Justice Alito’s appointment created the nation’s first-ever Catholic majority on the Supreme Court. In addition, he is the second Italian American to be appointed to the Court. Alito is viewed as a member of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing.
Justice Alito was born in April 1950 in Trenton, New Jersey, where both of his parents worked as schoolteachers. Alito’s father was born in Italy and arrived in the United States as a child. After graduating from a public high school, the younger Alito attended Princeton University, where he distinguished himself academically. He led the debate team, served in the ROTC, and was honored with membership in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
He attended Yale Law School, where he again excelled academically. While at Yale, Alito joined the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization dedicated to judicial restraint and restoring more balance between the federal government and the states.
Following his graduation from Yale, Alito served briefly in the U.S. Army, and then he began a prestigious clerkship for a federal appeals judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. As a law clerk, Alito assisted the court of appeals judge with legal research and opinion writing. At the conclusion of his clerkship, Alito worked in the appellate division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey. As an assistant U.S. Attorney, his chief responsibility was in handling criminal appeals on behalf of the U.S. government.
From 1981 to 1985, Alito was an assistant in the Office of the U.S. Solicitor General. The solicitor general’s office is an elite component of the federal legal apparatus. The office is responsible for representing the interests of the federal government in the U.S. Supreme Court. As an assistant solicitor general, Alito argued 12 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Alito served as deputy assistant U.S. Attorney in another highly regarded station of federal service, the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Justice Department. The Office of Legal Counsel provides legal opinions and advice to the president and to agencies and officers of the U.S. government. Alito moved back to New Jersey in 1987 to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the state. In this post, Alito was responsible for managing all federal prosecutions for New Jersey as well as representing the U.S. in civil matters. Noteworthy cases during his tenure as U.S. Attorney included organized crime prosecutions and a successful investigation of corruption in public housing. Alito served as U.S. Attorney for 13 years.
On the Bench
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush nominated Alito to a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and the Senate unanimously confirmed him. The Third Circuit hears federal appeals for Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. During this time, Alito participated in thousands of cases and wrote hundreds of opinions. He earned a reputation as an articulate and thoughtful conservative jurist. Some commentators compared him with Justice Antonin Scalia, an outspoken conservative justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Alito had served 13 years on the Court of Appeals when President George W. Bush nominated him to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court. Following a vote along party lines in the Senate, Alito was confirmed as an associate justice.
Alito is married to Martha-Ann Bomgardner, with whom he has two children. Those who know Alito describe him as a very hard worker who is reserved and courteous and who has a well-developed but dry sense of humor.
Supreme Court Record
It is often difficult to predict how a recently appointed justice will vote over time. Nevertheless, Alito’s background and track record as an appellate judge suggest that he will likely prove to be quite conservative on criminal law cases. He has criticized some of the decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court that expanded the reach of constitutional protections for criminal defendants, particularly during the controversial tenure of former Chief Justice Earl Warren.
More broadly, Alito has argued that courts should be reluctant to impose their own views by second-guessing decisions made by government officials. Alito is also expected to take a narrow view of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment
to the Constitution. That clause generally restricts government involvement in and approval of religion. On the other hand, Alito has generally embraced a more expansive view of the Free Exercise Clause, which protects the rights of the people to worship and express their faith free from restriction or interference by the government. On the divisive issue of abortion, Alito is unlikely to expand the Court’s decisions that recognize a right to an abortion. His appointment may prove pivotal to the ideological direction of the Court, because it strengthened the conservative wing of the Court.
Stephen R. McCullough
See also Roberts Court Further Readings
Rehnquist, W. H. (2001). The Supreme Court. New York: Random House.
Urofsky, M., & Finkelman, P. (2001). A march of liberty: A constitutional history of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.