NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., 55, embraced a reclusive lifestyle at Yale Law School during the early 1970s. For fun, recalls Mark Dwyer, who roomed with Judge Alito for three years at Yale, “Sam would go back to the room and study.”
Judge Alito, a Catholic, arrived at law school during tumultuous times on the heels of widespread student protests against the Vietnam War and soon after the controversial murder trial in New Haven of Black Panther party chairman Robert G. “Bobby” Seale.
But his focus was turned inward — to the Ivy League world of wood-paneled classrooms and intense study at one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools.
“Sam never went to crazy parties,” Mr. Dwyer said. “At the end of the day, he would occasionally pull out his bottle of scotch and pour a glass … to wind down before going to bed.
“He was hard-core. He definitely wanted to get everything he could from law school.”
The two had matriculated to Yale together along with five other graduates from the Princeton University class of 1972. For Judge Alito, the challenge wasn’t making top grades. It was how best to use Yale to prepare for a career that would bring him to the highest rungs of power in the conservative legal world and later see him shine as a federal prosecutor and judge.
Still, outside of a handful of awards and the rare honor of having an article he’d written published in the Yale Law Review, former classmates and professors recall him as quiet and ordinary.
“You would not have picked Sam out of a crowd and said, ‘Gee, that kid’s going places,’ ” said Yale law professor Lee Albert, for whom Judge Alito served as a research assistant.
“I don’t mean ordinary in the way he performed,” Mr. Albert said. “Hillary Clinton was at Yale almost at the same time. She just sort of stood out in a crowded room, not because she was beautiful, but as the kind of bubbling, effervescent kind of personality, where Sam was quiet.”
Mr. Dwyer said Judge Alito “wasn’t pleased” in his first year when he was placed in the constitutional-law section taught by Charles A. Reich, who two years earlier had written the hippie bible, “The Greening of America.” He had hoped to be placed in the section taught by Robert H. Bork, whose aggressively conservative views would later become the center of controversy during his failed Supreme Court nomination in 1987.
“He wanted Bork, not because he was an outspoken conservative,” Mr. Dwyer said. “It wasn’t that he was left or right, it was whether he was a good professor or a bad professor, and Sam thought that he was going to be a good professor.”
On the fast track
Upon his graduation from law school, Judge Alito’s career swiftly accelerated. He was selected for a yearlong clerkship with Judge Leonard A. Garth, a Nixon-appointed member of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
In 1977, he was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey, serving for four years, during which time he met his future wife, Martha, a librarian in the office. Although the two later moved to Washington and became close, any relationship they had was kept low-key.
“If they were dating … I don’t believe it would have been the kind of thing that would have been known in the office,” said Kenneth Laptook, whose office was next door to Judge Alito’s and who has remained friends with the couple through the years.
Mr. Laptook said he became friends easily with Judge Alito, whom he described as “calm” and “somewhat reserved” and the sort of man there is “nothing not to like about.”
“Sam has a very sort of dry sense of humor. He can be very funny, but for most people, it’s not like a ‘ha-ha-ha, fall down’ kind of funny, it’s an intellectual funny,” he said. “Martha, his wife, has a lot more of a bubbly kind of personality.”
Although friends say Judge Alito never publicly touted his top-notch academic resume, his certificates from Princeton and Yale began to pay off in political ways in 1981, when he was hired as an assistant in the office of the solicitor general in Washington. Judge Alito held the career lawyer position for four years under Reagan-appointed Solicitor General Rex E. Lee.
Former colleagues say that at first, Judge Alito remained mum about his political leanings. Mark Levy, who had gone to Yale Law with him and worked at the Justice Department at the time, described him as “not the sort who wore his views, including his political views, on his sleeve.”
That appeared to change in 1985, however, when Judge Alito sought a transfer to the politically appointed position of deputy assistant in Attorney General Edwin I. Meese III’s Office of Legal Counsel. Judge Alito boldly wrote in the job application form that he “personally” and “very strongly” believed that “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”
As an attachment to the noncareer-appointment application form that he submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office, Judge Alito, then in his mid-30s, also bluntly stated that “I am and always have been a conservative” and that “I am a lifelong registered Republican.”
Rules of the game
Although the document drew the ire of some Democrats on Capitol Hill last month when it was leaked to the media, former Justice Department insiders say the assertions that Judge Alito made were standard for any young lawyer seeking to rise through the legal ranks in a conservative administration.
Unlike Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who at the time was in the politically appointed position of associate counsel to President Reagan, Judge Alito “was an unknown quantity to almost everybody,” said Charles J. Cooper, who was assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel from 1985 through 1988 and became Judge Alito’s immediate superior at the time.
“He wasn’t a ‘secret handshake Reaganite’ in the Justice Department at all,” Mr. Cooper said. “You’ve got to demonstrate that you’re a supporter of the president… that does explain why he had to get political clearance to come over and be my deputy.”
It also might explain why lawyers who worked under Judge Alito in the office recall him as having an apolitical demeanor.
“I don’t remember Sam ever discussing political topics,” said Marc Miller, who worked in the office at the time.
Mr. Miller said Judge Alito was the most aggressive editor among the lawyers in the office, often giving meticulous “line-by-line edits” to legal memos shipped to the White House or to the attorney general.
“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.”