March 26, 2023

Alito writes praise for novel that promotes Chief Justice to Pope

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U. S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito visited the Brooklyn Bar Association on Wednesday April 6, 2016 Alito, left with NYS Supreme Court Judge Mark Dwyer 040616

U. S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito visited the Brooklyn Bar Association on Wednesday April 6, 2016
Alito, left with NYS Supreme Court Judge Mark Dwyer

By Tony Mauro, From The National Law Journal

Declan Walsh, a former law school dean, becomes chief justice of the United States. But after his wife dies, Walsh resigns to become a Trappist monk. When the Roman Catholic pope dies in a plane crash, Walsh succeeds him, taking the name Pope Francesco I—Italian for Francis.

That is the plot outline—minus the dramatic ending—of the 1979 bestselling novel The Vicar of Christ, a pioneer in the still-growing genre of Supreme Court-related fiction.

What makes the 37-year-old thriller stand out today is that a new edition, published in paperback in February, features a foreword by a real Supreme Court justice: Samuel Alito Jr. The book’s late author, Walter Murphy, a political science professor at Princeton University, was Alito’s senior thesis adviser a decade before the book was published.

“Although Walsh’s journey might seem implausible, Murphy made it believable for the thousands of readers who put the novel on the best-seller list,” Alito wrote in the new edition published by Quid Pro Books.

Alito went on to say that after recently re-reading the book, “I was struck by the things, both big and small, that Murphy somehow anticipated.” In addition to the name of the fictional pope—the same as current real pope Francis—Alito said the character Walsh “shares some personal traits with Robert Bork,” who was nominated to the high court eight years after the book came out.

“Both are bearded academics (and former Marines) who are faulted by the ABA,” Alito wrote, referring to the American Bar Association. “Prior to his confirmation hearing, Walsh’s beard is viewed as a liability, and at the hearings, to his detriment, he gives decidedly professorial answers when questioned by members of the committee. The Bork parallels are obvious.”

Alito, who recommends reading the 526-page book, also said, “The part of the book on Walsh’s Supreme Court days contains many details about the court not widely known by the public.”

But other details in the book are “quaintly dated,” Alito wrote, hinting that he wishes that they weren’t. “When Walsh appears before the Judiciary Committee, the room is half empty. And … the Washington press corps does not generally report the private peccadillos of those in the public eye.”

Alito wrote that he did not actually take a course from Murphy while at Princeton—Murphy was taking a break from teaching Constitutional Interpretation—but he got to know him over time.

With a crew cut, unusual on campuses in 1971, Alito said, Murphy was “a striking figure.” Alito said he did not know what Murphy’s views on the then-raging Vietnam War were, but “I doubt that Murphy shared the campus’ hostility to the military.”

Murphy, who was studying foreign courts while Alito was a student, enthusiastically agreed to serve as Alito’s adviser for his thesis on the Italian Constitutional Court. Murphy arranged for Alito to meet with Italian academics, and “he always had time to talk with me,” Alito wrote. Murphy died in 2010.

In other areas of court scholarship, Alito indicated that he now did not see eye to eye with Murphy. Murphy was one of the early scholars who viewed the Supreme Court as a political institution whose members sought to advance policy preferences.

“Murphy’s analysis jarringly used terms like ‘bargaining’ to describe the inner workings of the court,” Alito wrote.

IMAGE: Samuel Alito. Photo: Rick Kopstein/NYLJ

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