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Colleagues recall Alito’s attention to detail

The picture of Samuel Alito that emerges from his years in the Reagan Justice Department is one of an even-tempered, meticulous lawyer.
Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito Visits Capitol Hill
High court nominee Samuel A. Alito, visiting senators on Tuesday in Washington, argued cases successfully before the Supreme Court as Ronald Reagan's solicitor general.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The picture of Samuel Alito that emerges from his seven years in the Reagan Justice Department is one of an even-tempered, meticulous lawyer who stayed late to help young attorneys write legal briefs and handled the pressure without raising his voice.

Alito, a federal appeals judge and President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, was an assistant U.S. solicitor general from 1981-1985, then he became a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, staying until 1987.

The solicitor general’s office represents the government in litigation before the Supreme Court while the counsel’s office provides legal advice to the president and executive branch agencies.

Former colleagues remembered Alito as a detail-oriented attorney who was enamored of the law, kept his personal ideology to himself and was not one to make hasty decisions.

“He was a real kind of lawyer’s lawyer and what he cared about was the craft and that was a very striking thing about him,” said John Manning, a Harvard professor who worked for Alito in the counsel’s office. “He’s a very careful, serious lawyer and not someone who makes a snap judgment.”

Appointed at start of Reagan's term
Alito was appointed to the solicitor general’s office at the start of President Reagan’s term. The office had about 20 lawyers, including Solicitor General Rex Lee, several deputies and more than a dozen assistants. Deputies handled specific legal issues and the assistants, such as Alito, were responsible for writing first drafts of memos and briefs that were passed up the chain for review.

“Assistants are the people on the front line trying to figure out how to structure the argument,” said Carter Phillips, a Washington lawyer and colleague of Alito’s in the solicitor general’s office.

Alito came to the office as a bachelor, which gave him the freedom to spend long hours researching and analyzing issues, and writing legal briefs and memos. He married in 1985.

In his five years there, Alito argued 12 cases before the high court, winning eight, losing two and earning split decisions in two others. Most involved communications, criminal and labor law.

His first, in 1982, dealt with military contracts and he recalled being a nervous lawyer calmed by a gentle opening question from Sandra Day O’Connor, the justice he hopes to replace.

“It might have been the most insignificant case the Supreme Court has ever heard, which is fine by me,” Alito told The Star-Ledger of Newark in an interview this year.

A star before the Supreme Court
But it was at the lectern and facing the justices that Alito, described by former colleagues as low-key and not much of a one-on-one conversationalist, seemed to come alive.

“This is the Sam Alito who is kind of reserved, then he’d stand at the podium and it was a transformation,” said Phillips, who argued nine cases on his own and recalled watching about a half-dozen of Alito’s appearances before the court. “It was fabulous.”

In 1985, Alito was appointed deputy assistant U.S. attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, another small office with about 20 lawyers. Alito was more of a supervisor, reviewing the work of the young lawyers who could spend weeks drafting a single opinion.

Brad Clark, who worked for Alito, recalled pulling an all-nighter with Manning to finish a draft due the next morning. Both were surprised when Alito didn’t leave the office that night.

“He said, ‘I’m going to stay in case you need some help. Then he stayed and got in the trenches with us,” said Clark, a George Washington University professor. “That kind of thing, especially when you’re a 20-something attorney and your boss does something like that, that kind of sticks with you.”

Clark said his former boss was “just a very decent person,” very thoughtful and intelligent. “I never once saw him raise his voice, ever, which does say something,” he said.