Among the dozens of cases he had to review as a law clerk for a federal appeals judge in 1996, Thomas Gentile came across one that posed a special challenge.
“The briefs were incomprehensible,” Gentile said. They’d been written by adversaries in a federal civil rights case, and neither side had adequately explained what the case was about.
But instead of swiftly denying the appeal, the judge Gentile worked for, Samuel Alito Jr., told him to redouble his efforts to sort through the gibberish and see if there was an actual claim, Gentile said.
“He instructed me to take the case seriously and to read through it multiple times,” recalled Gentile, now a partner at Lampf, Lipkind, Prupis & Petigrow in West Orange, N.J. Gentile ended up finding a real issue under the federal statute, and Alito ruled that the case could proceed to trial.
Gentile related the episode at an unusual D.C. press conference held on Nov. 9 by 22 former Alito clerks — including several self-described liberals — who sang Alito’s praises and offered details about how he operates as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Fifty-one of Alito’s 54 past clerks also sent a letter to Senate leaders endorsing his nomination to the Supreme Court, which President George W. Bush announced on Oct. 31. The three clerks who didn’t sign the letter, organizers said, support Alito but are in jobs where they cannot take a public stand.
At the press conference the clerks painted a picture of a demanding, meticulous judge, whose love of the Philadelphia Phillies was open but who kept his politics to himself. “He may have regarded political discussions in chambers as unprofessional or at least as unbecoming to his position as a judge,” said Monica Dolin, a 1993-94 Alito clerk. She recalled attending a Phillies game with Alito and his two children, both of whom wore Phillies outfits, head to toe.
From 500 applications a year, Alito hired clerks who were diverse in their politics and background, including, three years ago, a former research scientist from Britain named David Loretto.
Now an associate in the New York office of Baker Botts, Loretto said that ever since Bush announced Alito as his nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, friends have told him they had no idea that he had clerked for such a conservative judge. His answer: “Nor did I.”
Loretto described himself as “extremely liberal,” but insisted that Alito’s conservatism was not evident to him, either through conversation or in his rulings.
Several clerks said that Alito sometimes writes his own first drafts of opinions, and when he doesn’t, he’ll often turn a clerk’s draft into his own with heavy editing.
“On some of the criminal cases he would come over and pull the file,” said C. Frederick Beckner III, recalling one case in which Alito looked at the file and then dictated an opinion off the top of his head, “with full cites and full paragraphs.” Beckner is now a partner at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood in Washington.
Alito was especially attentive, clerks said, to capital cases, believing that in such appeals the judge, rather than the staff, should do the research.
Former Alito clerk Jay Jorgensen, also a Sidley partner in Washington, says that Alito clerks began contacting one another the moment he was named to the Court. The idea to come to the capital and send the letter evolved from those discussions, he says.
Progress for America, a conservative group that supports Bush’s judicial nominees, handled logistics and publicity for the press conference and paid certain travel costs for some of the clerks, he says. But several declined the subsidy and were emphatic that no partisan group officially sponsor the event. Before cameras rolled at the event, held at the National Press Club, a graphic advertising the group’s Web site was removed.
After the press conference, the clerks went to Capitol Hill to meet with key senators and with Alito himself, who was at the vice president’s Capitol office. “He looked tired but great,” Jorgensen says.