Alito’s Path to the Supreme Court was not “plotted out in advance.”

October 4th, 2013

In remarks at Duke, Jersey’s favorite Justice since Brennan comments on how he made it to the Supreme Court, noting that he moved from one position to the next without any coherent plan. Not quite Forest Gump, but Alito seems genuine in not pursuing the Court as his end goal.

Instead, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, one of the few to have an appellate division.  “That allowed me to continue to do appellate work, which is what I found so interesting.”  Over three-and-a-half years he handled about 75 appeals before the Third Circuit, he said.

Alito’s next position within the U.S. Department of Justice was in the Solicitor General’s Office, giving him the opportunity to argue multiple cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He said he enjoyed doing so.  “But it’s like the old saying, ‘I enjoy having written.’  It’s very satisfying once you’ve done it, but it’s extremely nerve-wracking when you’re doing it, and the process of preparation is very, very, very intense.  I took a lot of time to prepare every time that I argued.”

Alito then moved to the Office of Legal Counsel where he enjoyed the “difficult legal issues” he encountered in providing advice to the Attorney General and the executive branch.  The move from a career Justice Department position to a political post was not part of a grander plan, he said.

“My whole career was not plotted out in advance.  At each stage, it was sort of, ‘Here’s an opportunity.  What do I want to do next?’ That’s how it fell into place.”  That’s also how he became the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey two years later.  

“I was the beneficiary, in a sense, from the fact that there was no Republican senator from New Jersey, either when I was appointed U.S. attorney or when I was appointed to the Court of Appeals,” he said.  “There was no senator of the president’s party who could make a strong recommendation to the White House about who should fill either of those positions.”

Being U.S. attorney was “a great job,” Alito said.  “It was completely different from what I did before and completely different from what I did after.  All of my other jobs involved a lot of reading and writing and thinking, and not a whole lot of contact with people.  But being a US attorney in charge of an office of 65 attorneys — and it’s now probably twice that — was a job of dealing with people and trying to make sure the office was moving in the right direction and we were devoting our resources to the right types of cases and dealing with the problems that would develop from time to time in investigations.  Every day when I went into the office I really had no idea what I would be doing much of the time.  It was fascinating.”

After three years, Alito landed his dream job when a vacancy came up unexpectedly on the Third Circuit, in New Jersey.  Nominated by President George H. W. Bush, he served on the court for 15 years, with chambers in Newark.

“I found the cases fascinating,” he said.  “That’s the crux of the work.  I like appellate work.  I like dealing with legal problems and I like writing opinions.  I had great colleagues and I enjoyed working with them.”

Alito was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush in October 2005 and confirmed in January 2006, after a long confirmation process he described as “surreal” and extremely public, particularly in contrast to the relative media obscurity of his work on the Third Circuit.  Joining the Court mid-term meant that he went to work immediately, voting on a stay of execution on the day of his confirmation.