Samuel Alito v. The Press

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Alito spoke at the New York Historical Society

Alito shared his thoughts about the press

Alito: Some columns are 'written by people who are not very knowledgeable'

CNN  — 

Sam Alito doesn’t have “any complaints” about the press corps who cover the Supreme Court – but the Associate Justice could do without “incredibly snarky” columnists.

“Some of the columns that are written, you know, are another story,” Alito said, in a rare public lecture on Constitutional history and law presented by the New York Historical Society on Saturday. “Some of them are written by people who are not very knowledgeable.”

Alito took particular issue with a New Republic column critical of the cloistered culture of the Court.

“I was reading one, actually, reading one this morning that was complaining about the current membership of the Court, because unlike in past days, according to this columnist, we don’t have a representation of drunks, philanderers, and a few, you know, a few other n’er do wells.”

The column - entitled “Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, Columbia” - argues “while we have gained diversity of background, we haven’t gained diversity of experience” and was penned November 13 by Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate and regular Court watcher for the past 15 years.

“The current justices are intellectually qualified in ways we have never seen,” Lithwick wrote.

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“Compared with the political operators, philanderers, and alcoholics of bygone eras, they are almost completely devoid of bad habits or scandalous secrets. This is, of course, not a bad thing.”

American legal scholar and Yale University professor Akhil Reed Amar, who moderated the discussion and referred to Alito by his first name throughout the event, politely described the column as “interesting”, and quickly moved on to other topics.

Alito was more forgiving of the regular Supreme Court press corps.

“We have a corps of journalists who are perm – that, their full time job is to cover the Supreme Court. They’re very knowledgeable, there are probably ten or so of them. The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, I’m missing some but there are, there are – they cover us full time. They are very knowledgeable and I think that their news stories about oral arguments and decisions when they come out are pretty good.”

But he couldn’t resist at least one jab.

“One of the interesting aspects of my job is that every once in a while we have a chance to compare notes with judges from other supreme courts or constitutional courts in other countries. And we had a visit a few years ago by justices from the Canadian Supreme Court. They, they told us that they do not have journalists like that,” Alito said.

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“Because there journalists were, the people who wrote opinions about their decisions cover lots of other things, they, they didn’t think that they were that knowledgable. So they devised this procedure that’s called either a lock up or a lock down, I’ve forgotten which one. They will invite the journalists who may be interested in the, in a decision that’s coming down to go into a little room just before the opinion is announced. And before they go in they take away all their electronic communications devices and then they lock the door and someone on the staff of the Court explains the decision to these, these journalists. And when they told me this story, they told us this story, I thought it was a really good idea. Until I heard that at the end of this process, they open the door and they actually let them out.”

The New York City crowd laughed heartily.

“That’s a joke, that’s a joke,” Alito interjected.

“That will make the papers tomorrow,” said the moderator.

Alito, at ease and clearly comfortable in the free flowing discussion, made few controversial remarks - unless you’re Canadian.

“It has occurred to me that we American judges have the most boring robes of any judiciary anywhere in the world. Believe it or not - there’s a website for everything - there’s a website, you can check this,” Alito said.

“If you have nothing else to do, you can compare and we are, we are the plainest, just the plain black robes,” Alito continued. “Everywhere else they have colors, they have fur, they have medals. The Supreme Court of Canada…to me, their robes look like they’re dressed up like Santa Claus. Have you seen them? They have red robes and they have white fur around.”

Indeed, a cursory but by no means exhaustive investigation by CNN returned a website - www.jjmccullough.com – on which judicial robes of the world, including those seemingly inspired by Kris Kringle, were featured.

Alito - who perhaps is best known to the public as the justice who mouthed the words “not true” as President Obama criticized the Citizens United decision during the 2010 State of the Union - need not worry about any blowback from his public comments.

Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.

“I think life tenure is a great idea,” Alito joked at the opening of the law lecture. “I think the reason is that we have the oldest Constitution in the world and in the late 18th century they counted on biology taking care of the problem.”