US Justice Alito addresses Juneau on hot-button issues

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court spoke Thursday in Juneau

Posted: Friday, May 08, 2009

Alaska has had a disproportionate presence on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court recently, including punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Juneau's Bong Hits 4 Jesus cases.

Three more are awaiting decisions now, Samuel Alito, an associate justice on the court, told the Alaska Bar Association Thursday in Juneau.

"Alaska is very well represented on our docket this term," Alito said.

One of those cases is again from Juneau, the Kensington Gold Mine.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and other environmental groups are challenging plans by Coeur Alaska to develop a mine there. At issue now, Alito said, is a permit for discharge of fill material, and whether they are issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another case, called "very interesting" by Alito, involves an Alaska man convicted of rape and seeking additional DNA testing to prove his innocence.

In the third case, Polar Tankers vs. Valdez, which involves the little-used "tonnage clause" of the U.S. Constitution, the taker company is challenging the city's attempt to impose a tax on large ships using the city's harbor.

None of the three has been decided yet, Alito said.

"I'm not going to tell you how they are going to come out," he said. "I wish I knew how they were going to come out."

While no one attending likely expected an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to telegraph a court ruling with some opinionated comments, the Alaska Bar members did get Alito's views on the pending resignation of fellow Associate Justice David Souter from the bench.

In the case of Souter, Alito was more than happy to offer opinions.

He called Souter "a wonderful colleague, a great scholar, and a patriot."

"It will be a loss for us when the term ends," he said.

Alito also said he supports Souter's strong opposition to allowing cameras in the Supreme Court hearings.

Souter, he said, would only allow cameras "over his dead body."

That's a view with which the other justices agree as well.

"Most of us are not willing to go quite as far as David was," he said.

Maintaining the Supreme Court's traditions in Juneau, cameras and broadcast media were barred from his speech, though they were allowed during awards presentations and introductions before and afterwards.

The heart of Alito's nearly 50-minute speech was a strong defense of the rule of law. Too many people, including constitutional law lawyers and political science professors, think judges' main goal is to advance a political viewpoint, he said.

Alito said he was troubled by increasing views that it is not the law that's the most important thing, but instead for the end result to be fair and just.

A recent poll, he said, was both troubling and reassuring. Of those questioned, 60 percent said cases should be decided on what the law says, and 30 said fairness and justice should be top priority.

"We have to recognize the important distinction between the law, and what we'd like the law to mean," he said.

He urged the Alaska Bar to continue to uphold that view, despite pressure.

"There are strong forces at work attempting to undermine this principle," he said. "It's the responsibility of all of us, on the bench and in the bar, to preserve the rule of law that's so important to our society."

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