Yale law students, professors form group to oppose Alito

School has tended to fight conservative alumni named to high court

November 13, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — The morning after Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. was announced as the president's choice for the Supreme Court, students and professors at his alma mater, the Yale Law School, were already hard at work - to defeat him.

Professor Bruce Ackerman, who teaches constitutional law here, appeared on CNN with this instant assessment: "I don't think `conservative' is the word. This person is a judicial radical."

A group called Law Students Against Alito was formed the same day. "There is a chunk of the population, probably a majority," said Ian Bassin, a founder of the group, "who does not want this guy on the Supreme Court."

If the past is any guide, the bond between this conservative judge and this law school, which has traditionally attracted liberal students and faculty, is about to be tested. The early indications here are that Alito will face some of the hostility that met the last two Supreme Court nominees with connections to the school, Judge Robert H. Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Conservative students here said they were concerned that the Alito nomination would be a replay of what they called the savage treatment meted out to Bork and Thomas, both of whom endured bruising confirmation battles. Bork's nomination was rejected in 1987, and Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52-48 after his hearings in 1991.

Faculty members testified on both sides both times. But the school was generally opposed to their nominations, said professors, students and alumni. Thomas was thought to be unqualified, and Bork's views were considered too extreme.

In his 14 years on the Supreme Court, Thomas, of the Yale class of 1974, has refused to return, and Bork, who was on the faculty for 15 years, chortles during speeches when he cites "a bit of populist wisdom" he once saw on a bumper sticker: "Save America. Close Yale Law School."

For now at least, Alito, of the class of 1975, retains strong ties to the law school. In a recent note to its dean, he apologized for missing his 30th reunion last weekend, presumably because he was busy courting senators and preparing for his confirmation hearings. "I believe," he wrote, "that this is the first five-year reunion I have not attended."

Alito might yet attract substantial support here, students and professors said, because he is popular on a personal level, qualified and technical rather than overtly ideological in his approach to the law. He was also better known as a student than Thomas was, and he has not espoused sweeping theories, as Bork did in his academic writings.

The mood here appeared to be cautiously hostile. A few students who supported Alito tended to make strategic or structural arguments. Some said, for example, that ideology alone should not derail a candidate who was otherwise qualified.

"He is a remarkably careful, conscientious, craftsmanlike, modest, even humble judge," said Peter H. Schuck, a law professor who described himself as a political moderate. "It's true that he generally comes out on the side of those who call themselves conservative. If I were in the Senate, I would like to think I would not vote against him on that ground." But the dominant view, based on a day of interviews at the law school, appeared to be that Alito's jurisprudence represented a betrayal of the law school's liberal values.

Professor Robert W. Gordon, who teaches legal history, said he had read all of Alito's 15 years of opinions. "Alito is a careful carpenter," Gordon said. "The things are well built, but they are not beautiful. Alito in my judgment is just too steadfastly conservative."

Still, the memories of the Bork and Thomas hearings linger, and many of those interviewed said that they hoped the discussion of Alito's views would be robust but civil.

"We've got to find some way to climb up from the hole we have dug for ourselves," said Anthony T. Kronman, who was dean from 1994 to 2004, referring to the tone of the earlier confirmation hearings.

Joshua Hawley, a third-year student and the president of the law school's chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative group, said he hoped the school learned a lesson from the earlier experiences.

"The faculty was perhaps somewhat chastened," Hawley said, "by the charge that they had stabbed a colleague in the back and then had stabbed a former student in the back."

The two earlier nominees might never overcome their anger at what they considered the school's disloyalty, said Steven Brill, a legal journalist, entrepreneur and law school classmate of Alito's.

"They both think that the law school betrayed them," Brill said,

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