Not long after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, two young lawyers moved into cramped offices along the same hallway on the fifth floor of the Justice Department’s headquarters.
One, Samuel A. Alito Jr., 30, was hired as a nonpolitical career lawyer. Promoted from the office of a New Jersey prosecutor, he quietly drafted Supreme Court briefs in the solicitor general’s office. Former colleagues describe him as shy and serious, prone to spending long hours buried in case files. Charles Fried, the Reagan administration solicitor general, remembers Mr. Alito as “a very cultured man” who was more likely to spend their lunches together talking about books and ballet than politics.
The other, John G. Roberts Jr., 25, arrived fresh from a clerkship for Justice William H. Rehnquist of the Supreme Court, and entered the department a rung higher than Mr. Alito, as a presidential appointee assisting the attorney general on a variety of matters. Mr. Roberts was handsome and funny, former colleagues say, and hard not to like.
A quarter-century later, their contrasting styles will be on display again this week in the Senate hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Alito, now on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. But if Chief Justice Roberts had the more political job then, it is now Judge Alito who faces more political opposition, in part because of statements he made in 1985 to persuade the administration’s leaders that he, too, was a conservative at heart.
To many of their former colleagues, the ascent of both men to the Supreme Court within months of each other would be the high point of a conservative revolution in the legal establishment: an effort over several decades to seed the federal courts with jurists holding a narrower interpretation of the Constitution’s application to abortion rights, civil rights, the rights of criminal defendants and the scope of federal power.