Supreme Confidence

A Jersey education put Samuel Alito on track for the nation’s highest court.

Alito, at about age 4, and his younger sister, Rosemary, excitedly shared a phone call with Santa.
Tony Kurdzuk/Handout/Star-Ledger/Corbis.

Samuel Alito claims he was only joking when, in his senior yearbook at Princeton University, he wrote that he hoped to someday “warm a seat on the Supreme Court.” No one was laughing 34 years later, when the Trenton-born judge was sworn in as the Garden State’s fifth contribution to the country’s highest bench.

Now 60 years old and a father of two, Alito speaks with great pride about just how deep his New Jersey roots run. His grandparents on both sides immigrated to New Jersey from southern Italy after the turn of the century, and his parents both grew up to become public school teachers in the state. Alito was raised in Hamilton and attended public school there before matriculating ten miles down the road at Princeton University. After completing law school at Yale, Alito returned to New Jersey in 1976 for a clerkship in Newark with Third Circuit appeals judge Leonard Garth, and slowly but surely worked his way up to a position as assistant to the solicitor general, which found him arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Through the ensuing decades, Alito rose to become U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey and then Third Circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the departure of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

What makes you proud to be a New Jerseyan?

I think New Jersey…exemplifies openness, diversity, acceptance, opportunity, and energy. That’s what it meant for my family and has meant for many people who come to New Jersey from all parts of the world. It’s been home to a lot of very creative people, creative in lots of different ways…in scholarship, starting up new businesses, in the arts. It’s very different from the unfortunate stereotype people continue to propagate.

What are some of your favorite places here?

I grew up right outside Trenton. I still regard that as my home. I think I always will, and I love that area. I spent four years at Princeton, then I spent the better part of about 25 years in Newark. I think Newark is very much misunderstood. It’s a lot better in many ways than it was when I first went there in 1976 for my clerkship. I became very fond of Newark and that whole area, and I’m glad to see that area moving in the right direction.

Regarding that stereotype, do you think there are other aspects to the state that outsiders don’t really understand?

An awful lot of people get their impression of New Jersey by driving through on the Turnpike, and unfortunately the Turnpike runs through some of the least attractive parts of the state. You go through the refineries south of Newark airport. Then, of course, all the references to New Jersey in popular entertainment are overwhelmingly negative and not representative of the real state.

What quintessentially New Jersey experiences or traditions stand out for you?

The best pizza or tomato pies in the world are from Trenton. Having sampled them everywhere, including Naples, where pizza was born, I think Trenton still is the best. The beach: Our summer vacation when I was growing up was to go to Surf City on Long Beach Island for two weeks. Those were wonderful times. When my own children were growing up…we started going to Barnegat Light, and for quite a few years we would spend a few weeks in the summer. I think people laugh at New Jersey for still being called the Garden State, but there’s no place in the world that has tomatoes that taste like New Jersey tomatoes.

How did the community of Hamilton influence you growing up?

I had some really good teachers in the public schools who had a big influence. I remember an English teacher in tenth grade who, after I turned in a book report on some book that I had bought through the school book club…she called me up and said, “This is a good enough book report, but you need to read much better stuff,” and gave me a reading list of classics. I took it to heart. I bought many of the books and really applied myself, in addition to my schoolwork, to work through the entire list, or as much as I could.
I had some teachers who gave me wonderful instruction in writing. My father, of course, did a lot of that. Whenever I wrote a paper for school, when I was satisfied with it, I would sit down with him at the kitchen table and we would go through it sentence by sentence. “Why did you say this? What does this mean? Do you know what you’re trying to say?” It was a painful but very helpful process. I had some teachers in high school who did the same thing.

How did Princeton change you?

I think it opened up…new worlds of knowledge to me. I think it also gave me much more intellectual self-confidence than I would have had previously. When I went there from high school—where maybe only one-third of the class went to college anyplace—and I was going to a place with students from all over the country, and many of them from very prestigious schools, I really didn’t know how I would stack up against them. When I saw that I could hold my own intellectually with the rest of the students, that gave me a lot of self-confidence that I probably wouldn’t have had. I was also very fortunate there to have some great professors who took an individual interest in the students. They were very open to talking about anything we were interested in.

How did growing up in New Jersey prepare you for your various legal roles?

In the other positions, the work was not that specific to the state, but as U.S. attorney you really have to have a feel for the state…At the time, there was a lot of tension between the North and South in the legal community. There was even a proposal to split the state into two judicial districts. Back in those days, there were only two area codes, and people would define themselves as 201 or 609. For many years, I was the only attorney [in the office] not from the northern part of the state. But I thought I had a better feel, as the result of my background, for the whole state, and tried to make an effort, although our office and almost all our people were way up north in Newark, to make sure we covered the whole state appropriately.

Can you tell me a bit about being on the Supreme Court?

I pinch myself periodically that I’m here. I hope I never forget that it’s a great privilege, and a great responsibility. I was an appellate judge for fifteen years before I got here. An appellate judgeship is almost always a bench of three. [On the Supreme Court] all the justices are in one building in one city. We tend to see each other a lot more. On the Third Circuit we were spread out, we communicated by e-mail and phone. The dynamics are quite a bit different.

How has the state changed?

When I visit my mother and drive around Hamilton Township…I remember there were farms and fields, and now those are gone, [replaced by] single family homes, condos, businesses, or malls. I keep up with the state’s financial problems, and those are very regrettable. I said New Jersey had always been a place of opportunity and energy, and I hope that will continue. I think the state really needs to right itself.

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