Meet Samuel Alito, the Most Important Conservative in America Today

Easy to forget but hard to ignore, the 64-year-old justice is leaving an indelible mark on the Supreme Court. And giving liberals a lot to complain about.

National Journal
Emma Roller and Dustin Volz
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Emma Roller and Dustin Volz
June 30, 2014, 9:31 a.m.

Su­preme Court Justice Samuel Alito en­raged lib­er­als twice on Monday, hand­ing down two po­ten­tially wide-reach­ing opin­ions that weakened Obama­care’s con­tra­cep­tion man­date and severely un­der­mined pub­lic uni­ons.

Alito is a re­li­able mem­ber of the Court’s con­ser­vat­ive flank, though he of­ten earns less at­ten­tion than his iras­cible coun­ter­part Ant­on­in Scalia, whose opin­ions are reg­u­larly dot­ted with sen­sa­tion­al rhet­or­ic­al flour­ishes that eas­ily seize me­dia at­ten­tion. Alito is less waffly than either Chief Justice John Roberts or the streaky, liber­tari­an-at-times An­thony Kennedy, and he doesn’t pos­sess any car­toon­ish idio­syn­crasies akin to the “dis­grace­ful si­lence” of Clar­ence Thomas, who for eight years and count­ing hasn’t asked a single ques­tion dur­ing an or­al ar­gu­ment.

Alito, an Itali­an-Amer­ic­an from New Jer­sey, can be easy to for­get. But as Monday again showed, his sig­ni­fic­ance on the Su­preme Court is real, and worth re­mem­ber­ing.

George W. Bush’s nom­in­a­tion of Alito in 2005 to re­place Sandra Day O’Con­nor (by then a swing vote) on the Su­preme Court may end up be­ing one of 43’s most long-last­ing and im­pact­ful de­cisions. Con­sider that in the last year alone, Alito has weighed in on is­sues as di­verse as same-sex mar­riage, vot­ing rights, uni­ons, and, of course, Obama­care. And in many of those cases, his was the de­cis­ive vote — though the vote did not al­ways work in his fa­vor.

Con­firmed on a 58-42 vote by the Sen­ate, Alito’s Re­pub­lic­an sup­port was near un­an­im­ous — and his op­pos­i­tion by Demo­crats al­most equally par­tis­an. His con­ser­vat­ive bona fides have promp­ted some to nick­name him “Scalito” (a play off of “Scalia” and “Alito”), and he’s done little on or off the bench to dis­pel such no­tions. Dur­ing the 2010 State of the Uni­on Ad­dress, Alito fam­ously mouthed “not true” when Pres­id­ent Obama con­demned the Court’s Cit­izens United rul­ing on cam­paign fin­ance. He’s been a scarce site at the an­nu­al speeches since.

Alito is also quickly be­com­ing a dirty name among pro­gress­ives, who view his ideo­logy as anti-wo­men. Last year he wrote the opin­ion for Vance v. Ball State Uni­versity, which made it more chal­len­ging for wo­men to sue em­ploy­ers for work­place har­ass­ment.

At 64, Alito, like his Bush-ap­poin­ted broth­er-in-arms Roberts, is a re­l­at­ively young mem­ber of the Court, and will likely serve for an­oth­er 20 years, bar­ring any health com­plic­a­tions. Lib­er­als, be­ware: Monday may just be a pre­view of what’s to come from Alito in the years ahead.

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