The Sam Alito I know

Published January 15, 2006

Thirty-one years ago I graduated from the Yale Law School in the same class with Sam Alito. Information that old hardly qualifies me to pontificate about fine points of the jurisprudence of Sam Alito, but I will tell you what I know.

Do I remember Sam Alito? Who wouldn't? He was a model law student, hard-working, insightful, always polite, never arrogant. When Sam spoke in class, it was worth listening.

It was fascinating to follow my classmates as we scattered across the country and around the globe, and gravitated into our careers and the adult lives which we had postponed by seven years of college education. Most chose large, powerful law firms in major urban centers. Some returned home to small-town America, others became advocates for the specialized interests they cared about most. Like that couple two years ahead of us, the Clintons, a few chose politics.

Sam Alito dedicated his life to public service. After years spent as a prosecutor and assistant to the solicitor general, Sam became the leading light of our law school class when at age 40 he was appointed to the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals. We, his classmates, celebrated Sam's success from the distance of our own lives. What a remarkable achievement, but who after all is better suited - by intellect, preparation, temperament and common sense - to be a great jurist than Sam Alito?

Let me chronicle another 31-year-old event. When I graduated from law school, my first job was serving as a law clerk to a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, St. Petersburg's own Paul H. Roney, a judge appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon. Judge Roney taught me to honor and follow the law. He was always gracious, understanding of the demands on trial judges and courteous toward litigants and lawyers. He approached each case with an open mind and thoroughly researched the law and considered the position of each advocate. In the 35 years that Judge Roney has served on the federal bench, his well-reasoned decisions always proceed from an application of legal precedent and the rule of law, free of personal bias, opinion or prejudice.

On paper or by political persuasion we are probably opposites, but during the year we worked together we never disagreed. Thank goodness Judge Roney does not use a political litmus test when he hires.

The best we can hope for in a judge granted a lifetime appointment and enormous responsibility is that the appointee will bring to bear intellect joined with intellectual honesty, a strong work ethic and an open mind, guided by a commitment to following the law. How a judge's philosophy evolves is a magnificent phenomenon.

The Warren Court desegregated America under the guidance of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower's appointees. A Kennedy appointee, Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, became more and more conservative as time passed. At the end he worked to undo his earlier, more liberal opinions. Two of today's "liberal wing" of the Supreme Court include President Ford's appointee, Justice John Paul Stevens, and the senior President Bush's appointee David Souter. Ironically, one of the principal concerns surrounding Judge Alito's nomination and appointment is what he will do with the Roe vs. Wade decision written by Justice Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee originally dubbed, along with conservative Chief Justice Burger, a "Minnesota Twin."

Judge Alito is no "Scalito," as early pundits have dubbed him to suggest he will blindly follow Justice Antonin Scalia. Neither is he a Harriet Miers, a nominee with no real track record and no real sign of intellect. I view this extraordinary appointment as a younger version of Judge Paul H. Roney, a person whose integrity, work ethic, intellect, devotion to the rule of law and dedication to public service are beyond question.

I am a liberal Democrat with papers to prove it, a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, as the first President Bush so derisively referred to those of us who believe in the Bill of Rights. And as a lawyer I advocate for the First Amendment to boot. I am very comfortable and secure in the thought that we are entrusting our legal system, and indeed our precious Constitution, in the good hands of Judge Sam Alito.

George K. Rahdert is a St. Petersburg attorney who represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues.