Former Alito clerks optimistic about judge's chances

By Chris Dickerson | Jan 5, 2006

Samuel Alito

Nathan Sheers

Keith Levenberg

CHARLESTON – Two former clerks of United States Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito are optimistic their former boss will be confirmed.

Nathan Sheers, who grew up in Huntington, and Keith Levenberg visited Charleston on Wednesday in an effort to garner public support for Alito, currently a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals whose Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday, Jan. 9.

"Judge Alito had the amazing ability to be dispassionately detached from the decisions he had to make," said Sheers, who attended Huntington High School in the early 1980s and received his undergraduate degree from West Virginia University. "He pulled together all of the facts to evaluate the entire situation."

Sheers, who now is in private practice with Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, said Alito's strongest asset is his modesty.

"Judge Alito was very casual, laid back and modest," Sheers said. "He was very enjoyable. He's the most unassuming person you could ever meet. He's almost shy. He simply doesn't act like he's a federal judge, so to speak."

"I was just out of law school, but I knew that I was probably at the pinnacle of my legal career clerking for Judge Alito. The experience couldn't have been better. I was seeing the inner workings of the court system."

He also used the adjectives familiar, accommodating and considerate to describe Alito.

"We would meet in chambers and talk about the news of the day," Sheers said. "He was courteous not just to the law clerks, but also to security, the staff and his colleagues.

"A lot of folks who appeared before him and lost all say great things about the judge. He always made everyone who appeared before him feel that their arguments were heard and understood."

"It affects how he interacts with the people he works with. He's a consensus-builder. He respects the process and the rule of the law. He respects people he disagrees with."

Sheers, who worked as a clerk for Alito in his Newark, N.J., chambers in 1992 and 1993 just after Sheers received his law degree from Columbia, said Alito's modesty will make him a "terrific" Supreme Court justice.

"He has that demeanor," Sheers said. "It's just a testament to his character that people like me harken back to the lessons we learned from him. He showed me that cases aren't just a bunch of facts and figures. They're about people."

Sheers said he last spoke with Alito last month when they crossed paths on Capitol Hill.

"I think his chances are high," Sheers said of Alito's confirmation proceedings. "But the hearings could be contentious. Some left-wing groups have started to unite to derail his nomination. But I don't think they'll succeed. And I think the public will get a sense of who Judge Alito really is.

"There is no reason not to confirm him, and I say that as a registered Democrat."

Levenberg clerked for Alito in 2002 and 2003 in Newark. He said Alito has the attributes you look for in Supreme Court justice.

"He has fine judgment and a sense of fairness," said Levenberg, a New Jersey native who now is in private practice in New York. "You want someone with capable intellect and someone with the right temperament.

"I think Judge Alito has those characteristics, but that doesn't even tell the full story."

Levenberg said Alito brings other attributes to the table.

"It's the way he crafts opinions or the way he crafts oral arguments," said Levenberg, who got his undergraduate degree from Tufts University and his law degree from Columbia. "They're the models of judicial clarity.

"When you read a Judge Alito opinion, it describes the situation clearly and concisely. I heard a judge once say to look for an Alito opinion if you don't understand a subject."

Levenberg said he remains in touch with Alito as well.

"He has a Christmas party every year in his chambers," he said. "And last year, his family threw him a surprise party to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his appointment to the bench. The judge he clerked for – Judge Leonard Garth – also was there.

"Garth jokingly stated that the only words he heard Sam Alito say were, 'Good morning, judge' on his first day and 'Good night, judge' on his last day. So we had a t-shirt made with 'Good morning, judge' on the front and 'Good night, judge' on the back and gave it to Judge Alito."

Levenberg thinks Alito's hearings will be different from those last year of now-Chief Justice John Roberts.

"Alito certainly has an extensive record to draw on," Levenberg said. "So he'll be able to speak in more detail and with more substance.

"I don't think he'll shy away from answering. He'll have a lot to say about the important opinions."

Levenberg and Sheers were in Charleston for Progress for America, a group trying to send as many friends and associates of Alito out across the country.

"West Virginia is viewed as a key state," Levenberg said. "Senator (Robert) Byrd has made some encouraging comments in support of the judge getting a fair hearing."

Like Sheers, Levenberg is optimistic about Alito's chances. And he said he isn't alone.

"All of his former clerks – and there are a lot of them after he's been on the bench for 15 years – have signed a letter in support of his nomination," he said. "All of us think he'll make a fine justice."

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