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Alito's colleagues say political labels don't apply

PHILADELPHIA—Ever since he was nominated to the Supreme Court on Monday, Judge Samuel Alito has been tagged with diverse labels: from right-wing to reactionary and from activist to simply conservative.

So why do Alito's colleagues on the 3rd U.S. Circuit of Court of Appeals—Democrats and Republicans of varying philosophies—say such nice things about him?

The answer, judges here say, shows why the judiciary differs from the other branches of government and how deeply the public misunderstands of how judges judge.

"I've always been angered by the tendency of the press and some members of Congress to say, `That's a Clinton judge,' or `That's a Reagan judge.' It's a very misleading way of looking at the process," said U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak.

Pollak, 82, is a noted legal scholar who was the dean of the law schools at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania before President Carter named him to the federal bench in 1978.

Pollak, who's frequently filled in on 3rd Circuit panels, said a judge's political party affiliation, "at least in a partisan sense, really disappears when you go on the court."

U.S. Circuit Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert, the longest tenured 3rd Circuit judge and its former chief, said even labels such as conservative and liberal don't "apply across the board to any judge at a given time."

"I can name a judge on this court who when it comes to constitutional law in civil cases ... would be called very liberal," Aldisert said. "But when it comes to criminal law, that same judge is of the view the rights of society predominate over the rights of the individual."

Outsiders might believe that Aldisert, 85, who was named to the appeals court in 1968 by President Johnson, would be diametrically opposed to someone like Alito.

Yet Aldisert, like others on the 3rd Circuit, has nothing but praise for Alito and the way he's conducted himself on the court.

"I think Sam commands a lot of respect because of his approach," Aldisert said. "He has never taken a position where he says, `This is how I feel about this and there's nothing you can do to change it.' What he says is, `This is what I feel and this is why.' And that's why I think he's going to make a good Supreme Court justice."

This kind of measured dialogue between people with opposing views may seem improbable to outsiders in an age when shouting and name-calling pass for public debate.

But in fact, it is typical.

U.S. Circuit Judge Anthony J. Scirica, the 3rd Circuit's current chief said: "Judges are supposed to be deliberative. We think. We discuss. And we feel a responsibility to get at least two judges in agreement on an opinion that gives guidance to lawyers."

Like Aldisert, Scirica said Alito's intelligence and preparation command respect in a 3rd Circuit conference room.

"He is extremely well prepared, even scholarly," Scirica said. "He helps us focus the case and the law."

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(Slobodzian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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