U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Delivers High Court Top 10 List

, Texas Lawyer


If his legal gig doesn't work out, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito could host his own TV talk show. While addressing the State Bar of Texas annual meeting in Dallas on June 20, Alito listed his colleagues' appearances on a variety of programs, "the pinnacle" of which "was Sonia Sotomayor, who made several visits to Sesame Street." Then, he launched into his own Top 10 list: things ordinary people don't know about the Supreme Court.

1. Only about 25 percent of the cases the Supreme Court hears involve constitutional law. Disputes between "originalist" justices who believe in interpreting the Constitution as originally written and justices who believe the Constitution is an evolving document are rare.

2. Precedent, not theory, governs most of the court's constitutional decisions. "The development of constitutional laws [is] not like putting together a puzzle. . . . [W]hat we do is a very practical theoretical activity," he said.

3. While the Supreme Court's work is practical, it's not academic. Even though four of the nine justices were once law school professors — and, "if we get one more, they'll out number us" — academic arguments rarely fly at the Supreme Court.

4. Oral argument can be overrated. Oral argument is a "is a relative small and relatively unimportant part of what we do," when compared to reading the briefing in a case, Alito said. Besides, it's tough to ask a question at oral argument anyway, which he compared with "trying to grab an item that's on sale at Walmart after Thanksgiving."

5. The judges are highly independent. Some have even suggested the judges operate like nine separate law firms. "For the most part, we don't even discuss cases before oral argument," Alito said.

6. Popularity is not the goal. While their approval rating have fallen — though not as far as Congress' — it's not the justices' job to care about such polls. "There is a reason why the Constitution gives federal judges life tenure," Alito noted.

7. The justices get along just fine. "I do fear that some people take from our rhetoric that there is animosity on the court. And that is not true," Alito said.

8. Some of the court's opinions mean less than people think. "Our opinions are written under considerable time constraints," said Alito, noting that a judge once said he gives less weight to opinions the court issues in June, near the end of its term.

9. Much of what is written about the justices is either misleading or plain wrong. A TV commentator once said that Alito ruled a certain way in a business case because he once worked for the Chamber of Commerce — a job he'd never had. "I thought, ‘It is a senior moment. You have just forgotten a portion of your professional career.' "

10. The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government. The third branch is small and can't enforce its rulings by the sword, but it deserves the respect of the American people.

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