Among his former classmates, there is almost universal agreement on what Samuel Alito LAW ’75 was not when he attended Yale Law School. He was not loud. He was not a radical. He did not call attention to himself.
Instead, his classmates said, the man nominated by President George W. Bush ’68 to the U.S. Supreme Court Monday was a soft-spoken and hard-working student who appeared conservative in his manner, if not his politics. He excelled at Yale Law, they said, but he did so quietly.
“Sam is not the kind of guy whose history lends itself to wild anecdotes,” said Mark Dwyer LAW ’75, who roomed with Alito for all three years at Yale. “He was just a really steady, solid, hard-working guy.”
Thirty years later, Alito’s background — from his childhood in New Jersey to his extensive record on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals — is being closely scrutinized in preparation for what many expect to be a heated confirmation battle in the U.S. Senate. From the moment President Bush announced Alito’s nomination early Monday morning, Alito’s time at Yale Law has been frequently cited as part of an academic pedigree that many alleged Bush’s previous nominee, White House counsel Harriet Miers, did not have.
“Judge Alito showed great promise from the beginning in studies at Princeton and Yale Law School; as editor of the Yale Law Journal; as a clerk for a federal court of appeals judge,” Bush said upon nominating Alito.
But in contrast to a long paper trail as a judge and a government lawyer, Alito’s time at Yale Law — as described by about two dozen of his classmates and professors this week — offers few clear indications of his emergence as a prominent conservative on the federal bench and now, the potential swing vote on the Supreme Court. Instead, it reveals a student who flourished in a high-powered academic environment even as he kept his political views mostly to himself.
‘Close to the vest’
In the fall of 1972, Alito arrived in New Haven about as well-prepared as any of his classmates both socially and academically, his peers said. Before he ever faced the tough questions posed to first-years as part of Yale Law’s use of the Socratic method, Alito had defended his ideas in policy seminars at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and on the Princeton debate team. He entered Yale Law with a group of fellow Princeton alumni who would form the center of his social life in New Haven.
“A lot of us were hippies, love children, political dissenters, draft dodgers,” Diane Kaplan LAW ’75 said. “This group [of Princeton alumni] came to class with buttoned-down collars and looking very serious, and they were clearly always prepared. They participated in class and were very confident.”
Guido Calabresi, a former dean of the Law School who now serves as a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, said Alito’s preparedness and emerging legal acumen were evident in Calabresi’s first-year torts class.
“I remember his exam, and I remember that it was lucid, well-written and that he had an imagination which, like many first-year students, he was careful about exercising,” Calabresi said. “He was careful to walk before he would run.”
As his time at Yale Law progressed, Alito earned a reputation as a “distinguished scholar in a distinguished class at a distinguished law school,” said his classmate Mark Levy LAW ’75. He earned a spot as an editor on the Yale Law Journal, as well as prizes for the best student note to the journal and the best moot court argument.
Outside of class, Alito stuck out less. He roomed all three years with his college debate teammate Dwyer in the Yale Law dorms, and he ate most of his meals with his fellow Princetonians.
Alito was friendly with most of his class, and he was well-liked, several classmates said. But while Dwyer said Alito was involved in the Law School’s social scene, he remembered his roommate’s main hobbies as reading and listening to classical music.
“He was not the most gregarious of all of us,” said Joel Friedman LAW ’75, who was in Alito’s larger circle of friends. “He wasn’t sitting in his room under the blankets, but he was fairly quiet and close to the vest.”
A conservative manner
While the head shots in the 1974-1975 Yale Law Directory feature a fair share of students with long hair or Afros, Alito’s photo shows a clean-cut student with neatly parted hair and thick glasses. He is not dressed formally, but he nonetheless presents a more conservative appearance than many of his classmates.
That appearance is consistent with how many of Alito’s classmates describe his persona — as a student who was conservative in his attitude and lifestyle, but spoke little about partisan politics, even in the midst of the Watergate hearings and ongoing debates over U.S. foreign policy.
Alito arrived at Yale at the tail end of one of the most tumultuous times in the University’s history, after massive protests surrounding Vietnam and the Black Panthers. By 1972, the atmosphere of activism and confrontation had begun to subside, said Robert Bork, who taught at the Law School at the time.
“There was still unhappiness and uneasiness, but I think it was dying down,” Bork said.
At the same time, Yale maintained its reputation as a liberal-leaning law school, both among the student body and the faculty. Professors like Bork — who was later unsuccessfully nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan — and Ralph Winter were outspoken conservatives, but they tended to be outnumbered.
Alito did show occasional signs of where he leaned politically. He was in the Army Reserve, having decided to enlist in ROTC at Princeton due to a low draft number, even as campus pressure was pushing the training program off campus. Dwyer also said Alito was disappointed he was not placed in Bork’s first-year constitutional class, and said he is almost certain Alito was a Republican at the time.
But George Carpinello LAW ’75, another classmate from both Princeton and Yale Law, said Alito did not fit the profile of an outspoken campus conservative.
“There were people at Princeton who were known as being very conservative and vocal about it, fighting things like coeducation or fighting the general campus sentiment against war and Vietnam,” Carpinello said. “I didn’t view Sam that way at all.”
By the end of his first year, the Watergate scandals began to dominate the political discussion at Yale. Bork, who had traveled to Washington to work for President Nixon, became a central figure in the Watergate investigation when he carried out Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the White House. And when the Watergate hearings hit television, they captivated the politically-minded student body at the law school.
Former Yale Law professor Lee Albert, for whom Alito worked as a research assistant his second year, said he remembered Alito helping with a law review article — published a few months before Nixon’s resignation — that discussed the special prosecutor’s powers to subpoena the president. But neither Albert nor Alito’s closest friends remember him speaking loudly, one way or another, about Watergate.
Following the paper trail
In the days since Alito’s nomination was announced, every aspect of the Appeals Court judge’s background, stretching back even before law school, has become a matter of heated debate. Progress for America, a group that has supported the White House in its efforts to confirm judicial nominees, sent a press release Tuesday naming almost 30 people willing to vouch in the media for Alito — a list that included not only Law School classmates like Dwyer and Levy, but also his high school English teacher.
Alito’s decisions from the bench, and in particular his dissent to a ruling that overturned a state law forbidding a married woman from seeking an abortion without notifying her husband, are receiving the closest examination. Yet even at Princeton, Alito chaired an undergraduate task force that recommended banning discrimination against homosexuals and ending prohibitions on gay sex, the Boston Globe reported this week.
But the only known writing Alito published while at Yale offers little evidence of how the judge may rule on the court. Instead, the paper — Alito’s award-winning note published in the Yale Law Journal in 1974 — was an argument against reading too much about a judge’s philosophy from his rulings.
In the note, Alito offered an exhaustive examination of two cases in the 1940s and 1950s concerning whether public schools could grant children time to leave class and receive religious instruction. Using archival material to reconstruct the Supreme Court’s decision-making process, Alito concluded that the decisions were based in part on private negotiations that were never reflected in the published opinions.
“Many commentators badly misinterpreted the … cases because they attempted to discern the motivations or long-term intentions of the Justices from the written opinions,” Alito wrote.
Yet three decades later, Alito’s confirmation may depend on that same kind of scrutiny.