As a young Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration in the 1980s, Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. (1950-) described himself as a lifelong conservative. After joining the Supreme Court two decades later, Alito shifted the Court's balance of power to the right by succeeding Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had held a pivotal position between the Court's conservative and liberal blocs.
Alito was born in Trenton, New Jersey, to an upwardly mobile Italian American family. His father, who immigrated to the United States as a young boy, became a career civil servant with the New Jersey legislature; his mother was a high school teacher and principal. A star debater in high school, Alito went on to graduate from Princeton University in 1972 and Yale Law School in 1975. As a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Princeton, he was disenchanted with the anti-war student activism of the time.
After a clerkship with a conservative federal appeals court judge and four years as an assistant U.S. attorney, Alito joined the solicitor general's office in 1981. He argued twelve cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In case memos, Alito stated his opposition to racial preferences and abortion rights, but he counseled against a “frontal assault” to try to overturn roe v. wade. He was promoted to deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel in 1985. In his application letter, Alito declared, “I am and always have been a conservative.” Wanting to return to his home state, he sought out appointment to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 1987.
President George H. W. Bush nominated Alito for a vacancy on the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1990; the Senate confirmed him without controversy. On the bench, Alito gained a reputation as a careful and conscientious judge with a strong conservative orientation. In one notable opinion, he dissented in 1991 when the appeals court upheld the spousal notification provision of a restrictive Pennsylvania abortion statute. The Supreme Court later struck down the provision while upholding the rest of the law. He also wrote dissents suggesting Congress had exceeded its power in banning machine guns and mandating unpaid medical leave for state government employees.
Alito was frequently mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee after President George W. Bush took office in 2001. But Bush chose John G. Roberts Jr. for O'Connor's seat in July 2005. Then, after nominating Roberts instead to succeed the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the president turned to his White House counsel, Harriet E. Miers, to fill O'Connor's position. Miers withdrew three weeks later, following stinging criticism of her qualifications from both liberals and conservatives. Despite calls to name a woman, Bush nominated Alito for the seat. In selecting Alito, Bush noted that he had more judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in the previous seventy years.
Conservative and liberal interest groups mounted strong lobbying campaigns for and against Alito. At the start of his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Alito said he had no “agenda” as a judge other than “the rule of law.” Republicans praised his qualifications, while Democrats critically questioned him about his judicial record and his views on abortion rights and presidential power. Alito declined to disavow his previous statements on abortion. He said he respected Roe v. Wade as precedent but stopped short of promising not to overturn it. On presidential power, he stood by a 2000 speech supporting the so-called unitary executive theory espoused by some conservatives to challenge limitations on presidential prerogatives.
In a strictly party-line vote, the committee voted 10-8 to approve Alito's nomination. Some Democrats waged a last-minute filibuster against the nomination, but the Senate voted 72-25 to cut off debate on January 30, 2006. Alito won confirmation the next day, 58-42, with four Democrats voting for him and one Republican breaking party ranks to vote no.
Alito joined the Court midterm and cast pivotal votes in three cases, all decided by 5-4 votes, that had to be reargued after O'Connor's departure. In 2007 he joined the 5-4 majority to uphold a federal ban on so-called partial birth abortions; O'Connor had voted in 2000 to strike down a similar Nebraska law. In 2010 Alito voted to strike down a major part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which O'Connor had voted to uphold in 2003. Alito appeared to be taking a more conservative stance than O'Connor on other issues, including affirmative action and church-state questions.
Voting closely with Roberts, Alito helped fortify conservative majorities on most criminal law and civil litigation issues and joined with other conservatives in dissenting from some closely divided liberal rulings. But he dissented in three First Amendment decisions in 2010 and 2011 that struck down a federal ban on depictions of animal cruelty, upheld the right to peaceful protests at military funerals, and struck down a ban on violent video games for minors. Alito was the lone dissenter in the first two cases and one of two in the last.
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