Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is not a kind person. If anything, it is clear that he is quite mean. I say this without having met him but in response to what seems obvious: Since writing the majority opinion in the decision that struck down a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, the 72-year-old justice doesn’t seem to have spent any time fretting over the weight of his action.
Instead, he was in Rome last week, speaking at a conference on religious freedom hosted by Notre Dame Law School. Rather than acknowledge the suffering and confusion he has thrust upon the country, the women unable to obtain medication and practitioners fretting about lawsuits when they should focusing on saving lives, he used the global outrage his writing has spawned as a punch line.
“I had the honor this term of writing, I think, the only Supreme Court decision in the history of that institution that has been lambasted by a whole string of foreign leaders — who felt perfectly fine commenting on American law,” Alito said, drawing laughs from the crowd. He joked that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who announced that he’s stepping down from that position, had “paid the price” for speaking out. He needled Prince Harry for listing the Dobbs decision drafted by Alito as part of a "painful year in a painful decade."
Alito’s actual lamentations were saved for the decline in religiosity in the United States and Europe. “This has a very important impact on religious liberty because it’s very hard to convince people that religious liberty is worth defending if they don’t think religion is a good thing that deserves protection,” he said.
But Salon’s Amanda Marcotte notes correctly that “if Republicans want to know who is to blame for young people abandoning the church in droves, they should look in the mirror.” The cultural clashes that Alito referees as a Supreme Court justice have often pitted conservative Christians, particularly evangelicals, against those in favor of expanded rights for everyone regardless of sex, sexuality, gender and race.
“The more both Republicans and the Christian establishment reject these basic rights, the more they can expect to be rejected themselves, especially by younger people,” Marcotte writes. Moreover, the recourse that Alito all too often favors appears to be less a protection of religious freedom than an imposition of one religion as the baseline of morality and public policy.
Alito's decisions come across as the judicial version of “old man yells at cloud” but with the power to affect millions of lives.
Alito seems to have little respect for the separation between church and state. Instead, he continues to ground his decisions not in law or precedent but out of his outrage that society dares to shift away from the beliefs that he thinks should be central to that society.
The result is that his decisions come across as the judicial version of “old man yells at cloud” but with the power to affect millions of lives. In the Dobbs case, he displayed an amped-up version of the mindset certain baby boomers have developed: Everyone who came before him is a fool and everyone set to come after is an idiot. The drafters of Roe, almost all of whom were appointed by Republicans, are in the first group. Liberal justices who dare to disagree with him are in the second.
Some people have meanness thrust upon them, souring with age or under the weight of circumstance. Alito gives the impression that he was born a mean, old man and there’s nothing in his writings to counter that assumption. He was a spry 55 when he was named to the Supreme Court in 2005, but even then, he was less a jurist than an irascible curmudgeon screaming in the face of the changing of society.
It is because a dedicated collection of his fellow mean old men has surrounded him with a coterie of likeminded justices that he as any impact. It is thanks to their efforts that Alito can stand before a roomful of people and laugh at the pain he’s caused. It is telling that in his version of “religious freedom,” there is no room for the compassion that his own religion teaches offers the key to the kingdom.