The most remarkable thing about the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions announced Monday 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.
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 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 glowered.
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 ‘pre-emption’ 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 Barack Obama criticized the Citizens United decision. 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.