Some baby boomers were permanently shaped by their participation in the countercultural protests and the antiwar activism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Others were shaped by their aversion to those movements. Justice Samuel Alito belongs to the latter category. For many years, he lacked the power to do much about that profound distaste, and in any case he had a reputation for keeping his head down. When President George W. Bush nominated Alito to the Supreme Court, in 2005, many journalists portrayed him as a conservative but not an ideologue. The Times noted that legal scholars characterized his jurisprudence as “cautious” and “respectful of precedent.” Self-described liberals who’d known him—as an undergraduate at Princeton, as a law student at Yale, or in some later professional capacity—sketched portraits of a quiet, methodical, reasonable man.
On the Court, even as Alito’s opinions aligned consistently with the goals of the Republican Party—in particular, of social conservatives—admirers praised him as pragmatic and Burkean. According to a 2018 C-SPAN/P.S.B. poll, he was the conservative Justice the fewest Americans could name, and for years he was overshadowed by his more flamboyant late colleague, Antonin Scalia; by Clarence Thomas, whose notorious confirmation hearings were followed by a rivetingly long silence on the bench; even by Neil Gorsuch, with his cussed libertarian streak. Richard Lazarus, a professor at Harvard Law School who has studied the Court, told me that in Alito’s first years as a Justice he was known primarily as Chief Justice John Roberts’s right-hand man—“someone the Chief could assign to write an opinion” that would not be too flashy or provocative, and that “would keep five votes together when he couldn’t trust Scalia to do it, because Scalia would swing for the fences and risk losing votes.”
Now, though, Alito is the embodiment of a conservative majority that is ambitious and extreme. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.) With the recent additions of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Court, the conservative bloc no longer needs Roberts to get results. And Alito has taken a zealous lead in reversing the progressive gains of the sixties and early seventies—from overturning Roe v. Wade to stripping away voting rights. At a Yale Law School forum in 2014, he was asked to name a personality trait that had impeded his career. Alito responded that he’d held his tongue too often—that it “probably would have been better if I said a bit more, at various times.” He’s holding his tongue no longer. Indeed, Alito now seems to be saying whatever he wants in public, often with a snide pugnaciousness that suggests his past decorum was suppressing considerable resentment. [Continue reading…]