Unlike many other recent Supreme Court nominees, Samuel Alito–President Bush’s choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor–has a strong background in criminal justice. “He’s John Roberts, but with a background in criminal law,” Michael Carvin, a colleague at the Justice Department, told the Washington Post. Former U.S. solicitor general Charles Fried, a Harvard law professor, said the “Scalito” moniker is totally unfair, and probably based on ethnic stereotypes. “Nino (Scalia) is a radical conservative, willing to turn the world upside down to achieve a conservative agenda,” Fried said. “Sam is a conservative conservative. He would never do something that when it came up you’d say, ‘Whoa, where did you get that?’ ”
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Alito U.S. attorney for New Jersey, an unusual political plum for a career civil servant. Alito got off to a rocky start when a jury acquitted 20 mob defendants his office had prosecuted — a case he inherited from his predecessor. When the National Law Journal described the defeat as an embarrassment for his office, Alito fired back an uncharacteristically caustic response that was twice as long as the original article, calling it “an utterly distorted picture of my office.” In general, though, Alito was known as a low-volume, by-the-book boss, driven by the law rather than any ideology. “He was his own person,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was Alito’s top deputy and then a colleague on the bench. “His legal behavior was never a function of any personal politics.” Lawrence Lustberg, a liberal civil rights lawyer who was a public defender in New Jersey, recalls that Alito was willing to listen to arguments about why cases should be dismissed or plea-bargained.