The man who could be the nation's next Supreme Court justice is smart, hard-working, quiet, self-effacing, even shy. But if you really want to understand appeals court judge Samuel Alito, focus on three things, say those who know him best: his family, the law, and the Philadelphia Phillies.
They paint a picture of a busy judge, the father of two, sorting through legal briefs among spectators in the stands at school swim meets, or taking his kids - and law clerks - to root for his beloved Phillies.
"When he was coaching his son's baseball team, he would leave the office wearing a full baseball uniform," says Jeffrey Wasserstein, a law clerk for Judge Alito in 1997-98. "Here is a federal judge leaving the office in cleats and those stirrup socks and everything."
Since his nomination to the US Supreme Court by President Bush on Oct. 31, Judge Alito has come under attack by liberal analysts and a coalition of women's rights and civil rights groups who say he is a conservative ideologue. But longtime associates and friends of the Alito family say Alito is very much a reflection of his parents, Rose, who still lives in Alito's boyhood home in Hamilton Township, N.J., and Sam Sr., who died in 1987. He is motivated more by intellect and public service, they say, than a quest for wealth or political power.
"His father came [from Italy] as a 14-year-old immigrant, and by the time he was in his 20s he was teaching high school English," says Jack Lacy, a former Hamilton Township councilman and family friend for 50 years. "To me that is quite an accomplishment, considering he came here speaking Italian."
Sam Sr. went on to run the Legislative Services Commission at the New Jersey legislature. It was a nonpartisan research office tasked to assist lawmakers in the intensely partisan state legislature.
"Sam Alito Sr. was a highly principled man who would not bend to political pressure," Mr. Lacy says. "Regardless of who was in power, Mr. Alito did not lower the standards of that office to meet political expediency."
Albert Parroni worked closely with Alito's father and now runs the same office. "I think young Sam knew what Sam Sr. was going through" working at the center of what could be at times a partisan hornet's nest, says Mr. Parroni. He says Judge Alito has carried his father's tight-lipped, nonpartisan stance onto the federal bench.
Others agree with this assessment. "Sam is in my view a genuinely apolitical person," says Daniel Rabinowitz, a classmate at Yale Law School who also served with Alito in the US Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J. "He was imbued with a sense of nonpartisan public service from his dad."
Mr. Rabinowitz, who describes himself as a "yellow dog Democrat," adds: "That's why I have a hard time fitting Sam into any kind of partisan category. We've been friends for 30 years, I assume he's a registered Republican, but I don't even know that."
David Loretto, an Alito clerk in 2002-03, describes a similar experience.
"I'm extremely liberal," he says. "I've had friends come up to me and say, 'I didn't know you worked for such an extremely conservative judge.' "
Mr. Loretto smiles. "My reply was: Neither did I."
Alito's reticence makes it almost impossible to tell how and where his conservatism was shaped - and even how conservative he may be. A rare break in that nonpartisan posture came 20 years ago when Alito was applying for a job in the Reagan administration. "I am and always have been a conservative," his cover letter began. He detailed his admiration for the writings of William F. Buckley and his opposition to many of the liberal rulings of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. He emphasized that it was his strong personal belief that "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."
Last week, the judge backed away from those comments, saying he was "an advocate seeking a job" 20 years ago and is now older and wiser.
In addition to the 1985 cover letter, supporters and detractors are poring through his extensive record on the federal bench - participation in some 3,500 decisions, including 300 opinions written by him - to draw a bead on his politics.
In the meantime, there appears to be no shortage of Alito supporters - from his hometown of Hamilton Township to the halls of the US Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J., and the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
"Judge Alito really is a wonderful person, a terrific guy," says Monica Dolin, who was an Alito law clerk in 1993-94 and who says she's a registered Democrat. "I'm not positive what kind of justice he is going to be, but I trust him enormously."
Ms. Dolin is among a group of former Alito clerks who signed a letter to the US Senate urging his confirmation. Of the 54 clerks Alito has hired since 1990, all but three signed the letter. (The three said such an endorsement would conflict with job obligations.)
One potential bump on Alito's road to confirmation is whether he failed to abide by a 1990 pledge to recuse himself from deciding cases involving a mutual fund, a brokerage house, and his sister's law firm.
Alito has denied any wrongdoing. "To my knowledge I have not ruled in a case for which I had a legal or ethical obligation to recuse myself," he wrote in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter. "I am proud of the record I have established during my 15 years on the federal bench, not only in terms of my jurisprudence but my integrity."
The issue is likely to arise again during his confirmation hearing in January. Associates and long-time friends say ethics questions about Alito are a nonstarter.
"I've seen him under stress when difficult decisions needed to be made, and in every instance his views were informed not only by his extensive learning, high intelligence, and wit, but also [by] bedrock decency and honesty," says Rabinowitz, the Yale classmate and former colleague.
As a student at Yale Law School Alito was known to prefer studying over socializing, living a conservative lifestyle. "He didn't drive flashy cars or go out dancing all night. He went home and studied," says Mark Dwyer, a classmate at Princeton and Alito's roommate at Yale Law.
Bill Agress, who hasn't seen Alito since 1966 when they were debate team partners in high school, remembers something else. "We won most of our debates," he says. But "when we were doing research some people back then in high school played a little loose with the facts. Statistics suddenly changed," Mr. Agress says. "Sam would never do that. When Sam did the research the facts were the facts."
Such earnestness has not dampened Alito's sense of humor. When a neighboring judge in the federal court-house in Newark positioned a pair of ornamental lions in the hallway guarding the door to her chambers, Alito deployed plastic pink flamingos outside his chambers.