The Real Mainstay of the Future Roberts Court

In an important piece today that’s worth reading and remembering, the New York Times‘ Linda Greenhouse profiles Samuel Alito–beginning his tenth year on the Supreme Court–as the true conservative titan of the U.S. Supreme Court, more so than the unreliable Roberts and Kennedy, the erratic Scalia or the eccentric Thomas.

[T]o the political right, and to a degree that has escaped general attention, Sam Alito is much more than just a face in the conservative crowd. He’s something special. He is a rock star — and not only for his headline appearances at gatherings of the conservative Federalist Society. He is the redemption of the promise that failed a quarter-century ago, when John H. Sununu, chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, assured worried conservatives that the president had selected a hole-in-one Supreme Court nominee: David H. Souter.

Greenhouse does well to remind us of the Souter nomination, a grievous “stab in the back” to conservatives for which the Bush family has been doing penance ever since.

In the November issue of the religious journal First Things, Prof. Michael Stokes Paulsen, describing Justice Alito as the “man of the hour,” accurately labeled him “the most consistent, solid, successful conservative on the court,” adding: “There are louder talkers, flashier stylists, wittier wits, more-poisonous pens, but no one with a more level and solid swing than Justice Samuel Alito….”

He delivers: not only in the big cases, like Hobby Lobby last June, in which he wrote the majority opinion upholding the right of a corporation’s religious owners to an exemption from the federal mandate to include contraception coverage in their employee health plan, but also in less visible moves that don’t get much public attention but that speak powerfully to the base.

It sounds discordant to suggest that a Supreme Court justice has a base, but Sam Alito has one. One of several recent hagiographic articles in the right-wing press was one in the American Spectator back in May, describing Samuel Alito as “one of the noblest men in American public life today.”

Greenhouse goes on at some length to document Alito’s ideological consistency, and also his strategic savvy, particularly in signaling which kind of cases might offer the conservative bloc on the Court to undo some key progressive precedents. Indeed, the more you read about Alito, the more you can see him becoming the fulcrum of a future Roberts Court that’s been supplemented by another conservative appointment or two from a Republican president. He’s only 64, a relative youngster in the SCOTUS context. So he’s biding his time until the Court has been turned crucially in his direction. It’s all a bit chilling.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.