WASHINGTON -- In his 15 months on the Supreme Court, Justice Samuel Alito has been everything his conservative supporters expected and his liberal detractors feared.
The newest justice has been a reliable vote in favor of the death penalty, expanded police powers and restrictions on abortion.
Alito has yet to write an opinion on a major constitutional issue, not uncommon for someone so new to the court. And he has been more measured than Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, declining to join their call to overturn the court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, for instance. Still to come this term are major decisions that also may well fall along the same lines, involving voluntary school integration plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, and corporate- and union-sponsored political advertising shortly before elections.
"He has been as advertised, not someone who wanted to dramatically change the law or had a fixed vision of the Constitution," said Thomas Goldstein, a lawyer who argues before the court and tracks voting trends. "But he has moved the court a significant step to the right."
Alito has voted with Chief Justice John Roberts, Scalia and Thomas in every case in which the court has been ideologically divided.
When they've been joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, they've had a majority to uphold the first nationwide ban on an abortion procedure, to reinstate death sentences in California and Kansas and to give police more freedom to barge into homes and seize evidence.
Conversely, lacking Kennedy's vote, Alito has been among the dissenters in the court's first case on global warming and challenges to death sentences in Texas.
On the court's liberal side, Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens have similarly voted together in those cases.
As the replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often found herself in the center of the court's ideological divide, Alito has managed to shift the court's view on some of the most contentious recurring issues before it. Roberts, no less conservative than Alito, took Chief Justice William Rehnquist's seat and has generally voted the same as his predecessor.
Alito's position in the court's biggest cases has been a source of frustration to Senate Democrats and interest groups. They could not muster the votes to block his confirmation after trying to demonstrate the depth of his conservatism when he was in the Reagan administration Justice Department and a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has called the failure to stop Alito his "biggest regret" in the years following President Bush's re-election in 2004.
Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said she expects Alito to cast a vote striking down public school plans that use race as a factor in assigning students to schools.
"I could be wrong, I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I'm wrong," Aron said. "He was a very doctrinaire ultraconservative at the Justice Department and on the 3rd Circuit. He continues to be one on the Supreme Court."
Not surprisingly, Alito's backers see restraint in his votes.
"Justice Alito has been a thoughtful jurist who understands his role is to be a neutral umpire and not let his policy views influence his adjudication," said Washington lawyer Michael Carvin, who worked with Alito at the Justice Department. "I felt he'd be a justice who would adhere to the rule of law and thus far he's done a superb job."
In some ways, Alito is different from the other conservatives.
Stylistically, he leaves the quips to Roberts and Scalia. Substantively, he refrains from the more frequent and categorical dissents that have marked Scalia and Thomas and their focus on originalism, giving a fair reading to the words of the Constitution as they were meant when they were written.
In the abortion case, for example, Alito asked no questions at oral argument and joined Kennedy's opinion without writing separately.
His questions during argument sessions, even at their most aggressive, are gentler than those of some of his colleagues.
In a case involving how a union may use fees from workers who are not members but are compelled to pay the equivalent of dues, Alito sounded very skeptical of the union's position.
"Why would I choose to give up the benefits of union membership and yet want to allow the union to spend my money for its political purposes?" he asked.
Alito's dissent this week from an opinion written by Roberts in a case involving trash disposal provided the clearest evidence yet that Bush's two appointees may agree on the major issues before the court, but don't always see eye-to-eye. "The public-private distinction drawn by the Court is both illusory and without precedent," Alito wrote, clearly expressing his disagreement without injecting anything personal into the matter.
Most justices change over time, concludes a new study by a group of Northwestern University law professors.
Souter, firmly entrenched in the court's liberal camp, early in his Supreme Court service was the deciding vote to uphold the first Bush administration's "gag rule" on abortion counseling at government-financed health clinics.
In 1992, however, Souter joined a five-member coalition that upheld a woman's right to have an abortion.
Could Alito turn out to be more like Souter or Justice Harry Blackmun, another Republican appointee who became more liberal during his time on the court?
It's not likely, suggests a recent study by Columbia Law School professor Michael Dorf.
Republican nominees who previously served in the executive branch have been "steadfastly conservative," far less likely to drift left than fellow Republicans who joined the court without serving in a GOP administration.
On the current court, Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas all worked in the executive branch. Republican nominees Kennedy, Souter and Stevens did not.
--The Associated Press