Judges do not spend much time on high-profile issues like religion or abortion, notes the New York Times. The workaday world of an appellate judge takes place out of the limelight, with the judge poring over records of trials, trying to fit old precedents to new facts. It consists of handling cases like the one Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. and two colleagues heard on April 22, 2003. They decided unanimously almost two years later to overturn the death sentence of a man convicted of robbing and killing the owner of a jewelry store. The Supreme Court will decide soon whether to take an appeal.
The appellate opinion, extensive at 35 pages, provides a window into how Judge Alito, even while adhering to a straightforward and technical approach to deciding the case, reached results that defy easy categorization. Prosecutors argue that because the defendant, Antuan Bronshtein, missed a deadline when he filed his state court appeal in 1999, the federal courts lacked jurisdiction to hear his petition for a writ of habeas corpus and should never have reached the question of whether the death sentence was valid. Pennsylvania has the nation’s fourth-largest death row, with more than 200 inmates. That guarantees that judges in Alito’s Third Circuit, which also covers New Jersey and Delaware, are familiar with death penalty jurisprudence.