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“He was fabulous at holding an issue out and saying, ‘Wait, have we really considered it?’ saying, ‘I don’t think you’ve seen the full range of options, and here’s why,’ ” Mr. Miller said.

On the radar screen

In 1987, Judge Alito left Washington to return to New Jersey as the U.S. attorney for the district, a position he would hold until 1990, when he was appointed to sit as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he had begun his career as a clerk years earlier.

Although he prosecuted a wide array of cases as U.S. attorney, ranging from organized crime to murder, it was the connections that he made in the Reagan Justice Department that appear most likely to have put him on President Bush’s list of potential Supreme Court candidates.

Regarding Judge Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, Mr. Cooper said, “It’s very striking, to tell the truth, that two men as similar as they are would be nominated back to back to be on the Supreme Court. I’ve marveled over that, to be honest.

“There were a lot of smart people in the Justice Department at the time, and Sam certainly was among the smartest,” he said. “But the thing about Sam that really stood out to me was just how very rigorously disciplined and honest he was as a lawyer.

“He could control whatever his ideological passions were and look at a legal issue objectively, neutrally, and assess its merits as objectively as any lawyer I’ve ever met.”