DALLAS (AP) — Samuel Alito came to the Supreme Court with two ideas about how he would conduct himself when questioning lawyers. He would try to ask real questions — “with a question mark at the end” — and he would wait for the lawyer speaking to at least conclude a paragraph.
Instead, he found himself playing what he called a “contact sport.”
“Trying to get in a question at oral argument is really like trying to grab an item that’s on sale at Walmart the day after Thanksgiving,” Alito said Thursday at the State Bar of Texas’ annual meeting.
After being introduced by Harriet Miers — who was once nominated for the seat he received in 2006 — Alito delivered a 40-minute speech in which he took a few gentle digs at some of his colleagues and the perception commentators and the public have of them.
The Supreme Court has yet to announce decisions in several key cases argued this term, including a high-profile case concerning the University of Texas’ use of race in admissions. Alito, who was giving a speech he called “Ten Things People May Not Know About the Supreme Court,” joked that those decisions weren’t going to be the things he revealed during his talk.
Instead, he talked about how justices generally evaluate cases and how they work together. While theories on evaluating the Constitution and the law matter, Alito argued that the high court’s previous rulings on an issue mattered more.
Visitors to the Supreme Court building in Washington who watch oral arguments see only a small part of the justices’ work, Alito said. Justices and the clerks spend many more hours reading legal briefs and discussing the cases privately, he said.
“Hearing oral argument is a small and comparatively unimportant part of the work that we do,” Alito said.
While justices often disagree on cases, sometimes vociferously, Alito said his colleagues are “not at each other’s throats” the way it might seem to some people.
Alito acknowledged he had his clerks once clip editorials from a few newspapers on court opinions. He joked about a few “small and harmless episodes” in which a commentator once said Alito had worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — he hadn’t — and that he was listed online as having five law clerks, instead of the customary four.
More troubling, he said, was the criticism the court sometimes received from high-ranking officials in other parts of government, particularly since justices customarily don’t comment on stories and “cannot respond back in kind,” he said.
He described such criticism as “simplistic and sometimes downright false.”
While Alito did not name names, he famously was caught on tape in the audience shaking his head when President Barack Obama said during the 2010 State of the Union speech that the court’s Citizens United decision would open “the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations” to influence elections.
Alito, sitting with five other justices, was seen to mouth, “Not true.” He has not attended a State of the Union since.
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