Alito, Samuel A., Jr. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As a judge of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for sixteen years, Alito established a reputation as a hard-working, highly competent, and generally conservative judge. When he replaced the moderate swing voter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, on the Court, most observers expected that his tenure would move the Court in a more conservative direction.

The mother of Samuel A. Alito, Jr., mother was a schoolteacher and his father, having left Italy as a child, was a teacher before becoming New Jersey’s director of legislative services. During his youth, Alito was studious and ambitious. In 1972, he received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. While an undergraduate, he was an active member of the university’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, He then attended the Yale Law School, where he served as editor of the Yale Law Journal and completed his J.D. degree in 1975.O’Connor, Sandra Day;replacement ofBush, George W.;nominations to the CourtO’Connor, Sandra Day;replacement of

After his graduation, Alito worked as law clerk for a judge of the Third Circuit, while also finding time to serve in the Army Reserve as second lieutenant of Signal Corps. From 1981 to 1987, he held several high positions in the Department of Justice, in which he enthusiastically defended the conservative policies of President Ronald Reagan. Over the next three years Alito served as U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey and prosecuted many organized crime and drug trafficking cases. In 1990, he became an appellate judge on the Third Circuit, a position he still held when President George W. Bush named him to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on October 31, 2005.

Alito’s Jurisprudence

At the time of Alito’s nomination, the Supreme Court was frequently polarized between liberal and conservative justices, especially on the controversial issues of abortion, affirmative action, the establishment clause, and criminal procedures. Because Justice O’Connor sometimes voted with the four more liberal members of the Court, liberal groups feared that the addition of Alito would likely move the Court in a right-wing direction. Organizations devoted to abortionAbortion;and Samuel Alito[Alito] rights were particularly hostile to Alito’s nomination. Conservative groups, in contrast, generally applauded Bush’s choice. The nonpartisan American Bar AssociationAmerican Bar Association;and nominations to the Court[nominations to the Court] ranked Alito as “well qualified,” the organization’s highest rating.

When journalists and organizations searched for materials about Alito’s judicial philosophy, they discovered a paper trail of complexity. As a student at Princeton, Alito had led a student conference that called for curbs on domestic spying and had urged for an end to discrimination against homosexuals. Shortly after graduation, however, he had joined the conservative Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), which published articles expressing reactionary views about race and gender. Liberals were especially concerned to learn that he had referred approvingly his CAP membership when applying for a job in the Reagan administration. It was not clear, however, whether he had mentioned this organization out of conviction or because he thought it would help his chances of employment.

As a judge on the Third Circuit, Alito had to follow the binding precedents established by the Supreme Court, and in this capacity it was difficult to know his views on those precedents. When examining abortionAbortion;and Samuel Alito[Alito] cases, for example, he tended to find that many restrictions did not place an “undue burden”Undue burden standard on women’s rights to abortions. In 1991, Alito was the only judge of the Third Circuit to dissent in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey[c]Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, when the majority overturned a law requiring women seeking abortions to notify their husbands. Alito had tended to take a narrow view of the congressional powers under the commerce clause. He had also tended to take a conservative view on law-and-order issues. Dissenting in Doe v. Groody[c]Doe v. Groody (2004), he argued that the qualified immunity of police officers should have protected them from civil suit for having strip-searched a mother and daughter when carrying out a valid search of the residence, a opinion that earned him the name “Strip-Search Sammy” from his critics.

Although Alito is generally classified as conservative, some commentators have said that he is not easy to label. In the area of free speech rights, his record tended to be left of center. In the case of Saxe v. School District[c]Saxe v. School District, for example, he argued that schools have no right to punish students for vulgar language if it is not disruptive. Alito had the reputation of tending to make case-by-case decisions and to avoid pronouncing doctrines. However, legal commentators did not agree about the substance of his judicial philosophy. Conservative law professor Douglas KmiecKmiec, Douglas, for example, called him a “judge’s judge” who approached cases “with impartiality and open-mindedness.” In contrast, criminal lawyer Lawrence LustbergLustberg, Lawrence described him as “an activist conservatist judge” who almost always favored the prosecution and narrowly interpreted the rights of criminals and prisoners.

Alito’s Senate confirmation hearings were held from January 9 until January 13, 2006. In contrast to the recently held hearings for the new chief justice, John Roberts,Roberts, John several Democratic senators were very aggressive in their questions of the nominee. Some of them refused to believe that he had not been committed to the views of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. They did their best to portray him as an extremist on issues of abortion, federalism, and government surveillance of citizens. They were especially critical of his theory of the “unitary executive,” which apparently disagreed with Supreme Court precedents on the independent regulatory agencies.

Like almost all other candidates to the Court, Alito said that the need to maintain impartiality kept him from revealing how he would decide cases likely to come before the Supreme Court, especially on the delicate issue of abortion. Concerning the principle of stare decisis,Stare decisis Alito emphasized its importance to the stability of the U.S. legal tradition, and he said that precedents should be upheld except for “extraordinary” reasons. He also indicated that he did not have any agenda to make wholesale changes in the Court’s jurisprudence. He further said that his membership in the Roman CatholicRoman Catholics on the Court Church would not directly affect his positions in particular cases.

On January, 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed Alito

s nomination by a 10-8 vote that followed party lines. When debate began in the full Senate, Senator John KerryKerry, John called for a filibuster, but the senators approved a cloture vote to end debate on January 30. The next day the Senate endorsed Alito’s nomination by a 58-42 margin. Shortly thereafter, he was sworn in by Chief Justice Roberts.

By February of the same year, Alito was participating in the court’s decisions. Having joined the Court in mid-term, he had not heard the arguments of many cases and thus was not able to vote. On May 1, he delivered his first written opinion in the case Holmes v. South Carolina,[c]Holmes v. South Carolina for which the justices unanimously upheld a law that severely limited the rights of a criminal defendant to introduce evidence that a third party committed the crime. In Garcetti v. Ceballos[c]Garcetti v. Ceballos, for example, Alito provided the fifth vote in holding that employers might discipline whistle-blowers without violating their constitutional rights. In Hudson v. Michigan[c]Hudson v. Michigan (2006), he again provided the fifth vote in allowing the use of criminal evidence when the police did not “knock and announce”Knock-and-announce rule[knock and announce rule] before entering a private home. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld[c]Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006) he joined with the minority that wanted to approve the use of special military commission to try alleged war criminals. In general, he voted to defend private property rights, presidential prerogatives, flexibility for police in law enforcement, and other positions considered to be a right-winger.

During this first half term, Alito usually joined with Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who were usually recognized as the two most conservative justices. A quantitative study found that he agreed with Thomas in 83 percent of the cases, whereas he voted with the more liberal justice, John Paul Stevens, in only 23 percent of the cases. In decisions made with 5-4 votes, he was on the same side as the four more conservative members 15 percent more often than Justice O’ConnorO’Connor, Sandra Day;voting record had been. Some observers referred to Justice Alito as “Scalito,” a nickname reflecting the alleged similarities between his views and those of Justice Scalia. At that point in his judicial career, however, no one could be certain whether that nickname would continue to be accurate.

Further Reading
  • Allen, Mike. et al. “How Alito Looks Under the Lens,” Time, November 14, 2005, 28-32.
  • Dworkin, Ronald. “The Strange Case of Judge Alito,” New York Review of Books, February 23, 2006, 31-36.
  • Gunther, Marc. “Judging Alito,” Fortune, January 16, 2006, 133-134.
  • Taylor, Stuart, and Evan Thomas. “Keeping It Real,” Newsweek, November 14, 2005, 22-28.


Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Hudson v. Michigan

Nominations to the Court

O’Connor, Sandra Day

Roberts, John

Scalia, Antonin

Senate Judiciary Committee

Thomas, Clarence

Categories: History