WASHINGTON AND BOSTON — In 1988 Samuel Alito felt the sting of defeat. Then US Attorney for New Jersey, Mr. Alito watched in shock as a jury foreman read 77 separate "not guilty" verdicts in a trial of several men accused of constituting the Lucchese organized crime family in the state.
The trial had been too long and too complicated, jurors said later. Testimony transcripts alone ran to 40,000 pages. Alito's team of attorneys were the "prosecutors who couldn't shoot straight," one newspaper opined.
Afterward Alito sounded abashed, saying all the expected things about the jury having spoken. But he also said something tough, and prophetic.
"The days of the Mafia are numbered," Alito vowed.
Seventeen years later organized crime is in retreat, at the very least, after prosecutorial assaults in the Northeast. And a prosecutor who supposedly couldn't shoot straight has been nominated to sit on the highest court in the land.
It's a rise in fortune that reflects quiet patience and an ability to listen, say his friends.
In contrast with the personality of fellow Bush nominee John Roberts, who "might be meeting and greeting an entire room at a party, Sam would be listening carefully to someone's problem, and giving good advice," says Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, a close friend from the days when he and Alito worked together at the Justice Department.
Alito is also a man who, through the years, has given ample evidence of his conservative beliefs. He may need all the quiet patience he can muster to withstand Senate hearings that are likely to be contentious.
A New Jerseyan through and through, Samuel A. Alito Jr. was born in 1950 in Trenton. His father, an Italian immigrant, worked hard so that he and his sister could have all the opportunity America offers, Alito has said.
He made use of that opportunity, winning admission to Princeton and then to Yale Law School.
There, others soon noticed Alito was smart, says Peter Goldberger, a lawyer in Ardmore, Pa., who attended Yale Law with Alito. He was quiet, and did not raise his hand often. "But when he did, you were immediately embarrassed that you [couldn't] talk like that when you raised your hand," says Mr. Goldberger.
In a small class of about 150, Alito was one of the most conservative students. But it was not an ideological conservatism, says Goldberger, who himself disagrees with some of Judge Alito's beliefs. In his conservatism "it's remarkable how little he has changed in 33 years," says Goldberger.
"I've always seen him to be a very decent person, very intelligent, intellectually honest, and personally honest," he says.
After Yale, Alito was a law clerk and worked in the Justice Department in the Reagan years. Then he served as an assistant US attorney back in New Jersey. He was appointed US attorney for the state in 1987. In 1989 his office won a conviction against accused Japanese Red Army terrorist Yu Kikumura for transporting pipe bombs through New Jersey.
President George H.W. Bush nominated Alito to the federal bench in 1990. Though his views are often compared with those of firebrand Justice Antonin Scalia, Alito is reserved and polite on the bench, earning him the nickname "Scalia Lite."
For all the talk about Alito's intellect, the nominee is also a regular fellow, says Mr. Kmiec. Recently Kmiec, Alito, and their families had pizza together in Hoboken, N.J. Alito ordered a dish billed as the "world's largest pizza" for the group. Reflective of his humor, Alito probably just wanted to see if Kmiec and his daughter could eat the mammoth dish. "We barely could handle it," says Kmiec.
In addition to what friends call a wry and satirical sense of humor, Alito is known for his voracious appetite for books, especially biographies. On an earlier Kmiec family visit to the New York area, Kmiec's son mentioned an interest in ska music. Alito went out of his way to arrange for them to see a performance that night. "I heard about ska an hour before my son said he wanted to go," says Kmiec. "Sam is certainly no ska aficionado, but he knew of ska. It's reflective again of the fact that he never stops reading."