By James Taranto and David B. Rivkin, Jr.
April 28, 2023 in the Wall Street Journal
Justice Samuel Alito was supposed to speak to law students at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., but when they showed up, he wasn’t there. “That Alito was speaking via closed circuit from a room at the Supreme Court seven miles away, rather than in person, was a sign these are not normal times,” the Washington Post reported. The Post didn’t explain what made the “times” abnormal.
It wasn’t a lingering fear of Covid-19. In a mid-April interview in his chambers, Justice Alito fills us in on the May 12, 2022, event: “Our police conferred with the George Mason Police and the Arlington Police and they said, ‘It’s not a good idea. He shouldn’t come here. . . . The security problems will be severe.’ So I ended up giving the speech by Zoom,” he says. “Still, there were so many protesters and they were so loud that you could hear them.”
By now a noisy mob of law students may sound like any other school day, but last May also was a tumultuous time for the court. The preceding week, someone had leaked a draft of Justice Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a landmark abortion case that wouldn’t be decided until late June. The last question at the George Mason event, the Post reported, was about how the justices were getting along in the wake of that unprecedented breach of confidentiality. At the time, Justice Alito said little in response beyond “we’re doing our work.”
He now says that the leak “created an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. We worked through it, and last year we got our work done. This year, I think, we’re trying to get back to normal operations as much as we can. . . . But it was damaging.” Chief Justice John Roberts directed the marshal of the Supreme Court to investigate the leak. In January she issued her findings: “Investigators have been unable to determine at this time, using a preponderance of the evidence standard, the identity of the person(s) who disclosed the draft majority opinion.”
Justice Alito says the marshal “did a good job with the resources that were available to her” and agrees that the evidence was insufficient for a public accusation. “I personally have a pretty good idea who is responsible, but that’s different from the level of proof that is needed to name somebody,” he says. He’s certain about the motive: “It was a part of an effort to prevent the Dobbs draft . . . from becoming the decision of the court. And that’s how it was used for those six weeks by people on the outside—as part of the campaign to try to intimidate the court.”
That campaign included unlawful assemblies outside justices’ homes, and that wasn’t the worst of it. “Those of us who were thought to be in the majority, thought to have approved my draft opinion, were really targets of assassination,” Justice Alito says. “It was rational for people to believe that they might be able to stop the decision in Dobbs by killing one of us.” On June 8, an armed man was arrested outside the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh; the suspect was later charged with attempted assassination and has pleaded not guilty.
A few pundits on the left speculated that the leaker might have been a conservative attempting to lock in the five-justice majority and overturn the constitutional right to abortion. “That’s infuriating to me,” Justice Alito says of the theory. “Look, this made us targets of assassination. Would I do that to myself? Would the five of us have done that to ourselves? It’s quite implausible.”
He adds that “I don’t feel physically unsafe, because we now have a lot of protection.” He is “driven around in basically a tank, and I’m not really supposed to go anyplace by myself without the tank and my members of the police force.” Deputy U.S. marshals guard the justices’ homes 24/7. (The U.S. Marshals Service, a bureau of the Justice Department, is distinct from the marshal of the court, who reports to the justices and oversees the Supreme Court Police.)
A federal law called Section 1507 makes it a crime to picket or parade “in or near” a federal judge’s residence “with the intent of influencing” him “in the discharge of his duty.” During a hearing last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland told Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) that the marshals have “full authority to arrest” violators of Section 1507. But according to training slides obtained by Sen. Katie Britt (R., Ala.), deputies on the justices’ residential details are told to enforce the law only as “a last resort to prevent physical harm to the Justices and/or their families.”
Although the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution allows for reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech, the training slides indicate that the Justice Department believes it is unconstitutional to enforce Section 1507 absent “criminal threats and intimidation.” Regular protests outside the justices’ homes continue.
In some ways this is an old story. Each side of the abortion debate has featured a vigorous protest culture since at least the 1970s, when the court decided Roe v. Wade. The last time it reconsidered Roe, the three-justice plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) asserted that it would “subvert the Court’s legitimacy” to overturn a precedent while “under fire,” meaning subjected to public criticism. The losing side has even resorted to violence before: Antiabortion extremists assassinated four abortion doctors between 1993 and 2009.
But as the court has grown more conservative in recent years, the left has stepped up the attacks on the court’s “legitimacy,” including character assassination of individual justices, with little objection from mainstream Democrats and plenty of help from the media.
Justice Alito says “this type of concerted attack on the court and on individual justices” is “new during my lifetime. . . . We are being hammered daily, and I think quite unfairly in a lot of instances. And nobody, practically nobody, is defending us. The idea has always been that judges are not supposed to respond to criticisms, but if the courts are being unfairly attacked, the organized bar will come to their defense.” Instead, “if anything, they’ve participated to some degree in these attacks.”
Judges are in a double bind: If they don’t respond, the attacks stand. If they do, they diminish the mystique on which judicial authority depends. Justice Alito demurs when we ask about “ethics” accusations against Justice Clarence Thomas from partisan media: “I’ll stay away from that.” But he does address a less-recent drama: “After Justice Kavanaugh was accused of being a rapist during his Senate confirmation hearings, he made an impassioned speech, made an impassioned scene, and he was criticized because it was supposedly not judicious, not the proper behavior for a judge to speak in those terms. I don’t know—if somebody calls you a rapist?”
Those who throw the mud then disparage the justices for being dirty. “We’re being bombarded with this,” Justice Alito says, “and then those who are attacking us say, ‘Look how unpopular they are. Look how low their approval rating has sunk.’ Well, yeah, what do you expect when you’re—day in and day out, ‘They’re illegitimate. They’re engaging in all sorts of unethical conduct. They’re doing this, they’re doing that’?”
It “undermines confidence in the government,” Justice Alito says. “It’s one thing to say the court is wrong; it’s another thing to say it’s an illegitimate institution. You could say the same thing about Congress and the president. . . . When you say that they’re illegitimate, any of the three branches of government, you’re really striking at something that’s essential to self-government.”
Some of the attacks are more technical, such as those involving the “shadow docket.” That term, coined by a law professor less than a decade ago, refers to applications for emergency orders and summary decisions, which the justices handle quickly and without full briefing. Such matters often provoke disagreement within the court, such as a 2022 Alabama congressional redistricting case in which Justice Elena Kagan, joined by two colleagues, complained of “the scanty review this Court gives matters on its shadow docket.”
Justice Alito finds these applications a nuisance. “They’re very disruptive. But what are we supposed to do? They are brought to us. The last administration brought a lot of them to us because a lot of its programs were enjoined. This administration is doing the same thing right now. The solicitor general has said that she’s likely to file an application here to stay the Fifth Circuit’s order in the case involving the—mifestiprone? However you pronounce the word.” It’s mifepristone, an abortion drug that a lower court had said the Food and Drug Administration erred in approving.
It’s April 13 when Justice Alito tells us: “I have to prepare for a sitting next week. The next two weeks we have arguments. I have to prepare for all of those cases. But when this comes in, I’m going to have to put all that aside and deal with it.” On April 14 the application reached Justice Alito in his capacity as circuit justice for the Fifth Circuit. He issued a temporary stay immediately and extended it on April 19. On April 21 the full court granted the stay, so that mifepristone will remain on the market pending further litigation.
Justice Alito filed a written dissent from the order granting the stay. He cited past complaints about the shadow docket from Justices Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett. “I did not agree with these criticisms at the time,” he wrote, “but if they were warranted in the cases in which they were made, they are emphatically true here.”
The court’s attackers clearly seek to poison the well, but to what end? They sometimes proclaim unrealistic goals such as pressuring a disfavored justice to retire or removing him from office through impeachment. Sometimes they speak of packing or “expanding” the court—enacting legislation to create new seats that would immediately be filled by a Democratic president and Senate.
That might become possible if the Democrats have a good election in 2024, although Franklin D. Roosevelt failed in 1937 with enormous majorities, and Joe Biden, with narrow ones in 2021, punted the idea to a committee. It also would open the door to retaliatory packing by a future Republican president and Congress. Justice Alito finds the whole notion appalling: “To change the size of the court just because you want to change the result in cases—that would destroy it. You want to talk about our legitimacy? That would destroy the perception that we’re anything other than a political body.”
The threat to politicize the court can tempt justices to rule defensively—to take account of political ramifications and thereby politicize their own institution. The plurality explicitly did that in Casey, and some sitting justices have been accused of it in recent years. Justice Alito isn’t one of them.
“This is not a situation in which the right thing to do is different from the expedient thing to do, at least in the long term,” he says. The public “will have reason to question our legitimacy if they see that what we are doing is not following the Constitution and the laws, but we’ve got our finger to the wind”—he lofts a digit—“and we’re issuing decisions that nobody really believes represent our sincere thinking about the law, but are structured in a way to curry favor, avoid controversy or something like that.”
Justice Antonin Scalia said something similar in his dissent in Casey: “The notion that we would decide a case differently from the way we otherwise would have in order to show that we can stand firm against public disapproval is frightening.”
The careers of Justices Scalia and Alito, whose high-court service overlapped by slightly more than a decade, demonstrate the increasing aggressiveness of the left’s approach to the court. Scalia was confirmed 98-0 in 1986; Justice Alito’s 2006 vote was 58-42, with only four Democratic ayes. The former, the first Italian-American justice, was celebrated as an ethnic pioneer; the latter’s opponents belittled him with the bigoted portmanteau “Scalito,” which appears on a framed bumper sticker on his bookshelf, a confirmation keepsake.
How did Scalia escape the opprobrium to which his younger colleagues and successors have been subjected? In part by dissenting often. “Nobody can say for sure,” Justice Alito says, “but I’m willing to bet he would have been on the side that has been so heavily criticized in all the controversial cases. His vote would have been there, and he would have been subjected to the same kind of criticism.”
There’s little doubt that would have been true of Dobbs. “Some decisions,” Justice Alito says, “and I think that Roe and Casey fell in this category, are so egregiously wrong, so clearly wrong, that that’s a very strong factor in support of overruling them.” Scalia was even blunter in Casey: “We should get out of this area, where we have no right to be, and where we do neither ourselves nor the country any good by remaining.”
“When you’re in dissent,” Justice Alito observes, “well, his ideas were amusing and interesting. He spoke at a lot of law schools and he was honored at law schools, but he wasn’t a threat, because those views were not prevailing on issues that really hit home.”
Soon after Scalia’s death in 2016, one of those law schools even took his name—Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. That’s where Justice Alito was unable to set foot six years later because “the security problems will be severe.”
Mr. Taranto is the Journal’s editorial features editor. Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.