Could Morris Bender have diagnosed what's wrong with "Sammy the Hammer" Alito?
The other day, in recalling how the five right-wing thugs on the Supreme Court made their way there, Howie made passing reference to what the Washington Post's Dana Milbank in his Tuesday column called "Justice Samuel Alito's middle-school antics."
I think this requires a little more attention. Not that there's anything we can do about it short of impeachment, which of course isn't going to happen. Still, the more exposure we get to the mind as well as the manners of Sammy the Hammer, the more he's coming to seem to me as utterly useless a pile of protoplasm as our beloved Justice Clarence Thomas.
Dana has now logged a lot of years in our nation's capital as a reporter rather than a thumb-sucker, meaning that he has spent a lot of time observing the local fauna at close-up range, and he is now emerging as a singularly valuable guide to behaviors that go beyond the range of "Washington normal." Early this year, for example, I admired the important distinction he drew in a column called "A House radical is now in the meanstream." He was writing about the return to Congress of Texas wacko Steve Stockman, having discovered that the loony GOP representative who was threatening President Obama with impeachment if he used an executive order on guns was a loon he remembered vividly from a memorably loony single House term in the '90s, swept into office in the Republican tide of 1994.
However, Dana wrote, there's an important difference. Back then, "he proved too much even for the '94 revolutionaries; his classmates came to shun him and voters in his competitive district sent him packing." No more: "His views, outlandish in the House of 1995, are more at home in the House of 2013." For example, Stockman had just been "one of 179 House Republicans to vote against aid to Hurricane Sandy's victims." The vintage-2013 Steve Stockman "can still bring the crazy," Dana concluded. "The problem is he's now just one of many purveyors."
DANA TARGETS "SAMMY THE HAMMER"
"The most remarkable thing about the Supreme Court's opinions announced Monday," Dana wrote in his Tuesday column this week, "was not what the justices wrote or said. It was what Samuel Alito did."
The associate justice, a George W. Bush appointee, read two opinions, both 5-4 decisions that split the court along its usual right-left divide. But Alito didn't stop there. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, Alito visibly mocked his colleague.This was not unique behavior for the Hammer, Dana wrote.
Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the high court, was making her argument about how the majority opinion made it easier for sexual harassment to occur in the workplace when Alito, seated immediately to Ginsburg's left, shook his head from side to side in disagreement, rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling.
His treatment of the 80-year-old Ginsburg, 17 years his elder and with 13 years more seniority, was a curious display of judicial temperament or, more accurately, judicial intemperance. Typically, justices state their differences in words -- and Alito, as it happens, had just spoken several hundred of his own from the bench. But he frequently supplements words with middle-school gestures.
Days earlier, I watched as he demonstrated his disdain for Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the two other women on the court. Kagan, the newest justice, prefaced her reading of an opinion in a low-profile case by joking that it was "possibly not" the case the audience had come to hear. The audience responded with laughter, a few justices smiled -- and Alito, seated at Kagan's right elbow, glowered.Nor is the Hammer's disdain exculsively reserved for female Supreme Court justices.
Another time, Sotomayor, reading a little-watched case about water rights, joked that "every student in the audience is going to look up the word ‘preemption' today." Alito rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Alito is best known for his antics at the 2010 State of the Union address, when President Obama criticized the Citizens Uniteddecision. While other justices remained expressionless, Alito adopted a sour look, shook his head "no" and appeared to mouth the words "not true." At the various oral arguments I've watched over the past few years, Alito's eye-rolling, head-shaking and other expressions of exasperation are a fairly common occurrence, most often when Sotomayor has the floor.On the day in question, Dana points out, the most dramatic business was the High Court's "unexpectedly modest decision on affirmative action," a rare demonstration of judicial "comity."
Beyond the broad agreement on affirmative action, though, were three 5-4 decisions Monday, two read by Alito with a dry and clinical delivery. In the first, he announced that the court was rejecting a jury award for a woman who was disfigured and disabled by a drug that didn't come with adequate warnings. Despite the "dreadful injuries," Alito argued, siding with the drugmaker and throwing out an appellate-court ruling, "sympathy for respondent does not relieve us of the responsibility of following the law."Dana goes on to differentiate the Hammer's loutishness with some of his conservative colleagues' less antagonistic ways of expressing themselves.
The second case Alito read, one of two cases Monday limiting claims of workplace discrimination, rejected an African American woman's complaints of a racially hostile work environment. Alito argued that the employer was not liable because, under Alito's narrowed definition, the person doing the harassing did not qualify as the employee's supervisor.
* "Antonin Scalia is caustic and even incendiary, but often funny."
* "Chief Justice John Roberts can be droll."
And "on the other side":
* [Elena] Kagan has tried to make the court more accessible to a lay audience by giving chatty lectures from the bench rather than reading from her written opinions, which also have been playful. . . ."
* Even [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, no comedienne, can be colloquial and accessible. In her dissents Monday, she noted that an employee can avoid a harassing co-worker by telling him to 'buzz off,' and she argued that 'the ball again lies in Congress's court to correct this court's wayward interpretations.' She also invoked the self-deprecating quotation defining a legal mind as one that "can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking about the thing which it is attached to.' Ginsburg was tart, even acidic -- but she confined her objections to words. That kind of judicial restraint would benefit her junior colleague."
But I don't think Sammy the Hammer's problem is merely lack of restraint. We've seen repeatedly the dark side of his life story, the way his brain seems to be hammered into unbendable, impenetrable orthodoxy by the romance of -- so he seems to think -- having lifted himself up by his bootstraps from an immigrant's son -- the story that played so heartfully during the confirmation hearings that whitewashed his lurking radicalism. Never mind that both his parents were teachers. That doesn't fit the romance so well. He seems to look at every situation that comes before him as if he's thinking: "I made it all on my own. Why shouldn't you?" (My guess, by the way, is that a closer look would show that our Sammy had a whole lot more help along the way than he seems to remember.)
In fact, the problem turned out to be the opposite. David was so bright that he was bored by school. But I wonder whether Morris hasn't unwittingly diagnosed Justice Sammy, now becoming known for both his smugly self-satisfied judicial inanities and his repulsively boorish behavior. Maybe, I'm suggesting, he's just stoo-pid.