WASHINGTON – For the Seton Hall Law School students who'd watched the Manhattan skyline from the windows of their school library as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks unfolded, the chance to take a seminar on terrorism and civil liberties was too good to pass up.
Each week for two hours, under the tutelage of a distinguished federal appellate judge by the name of Samuel Alito, the students would hash out issues they knew were or soon would be a big deal as far as jurisprudence goes.
Typical of the class, just working out a definition of "terrorism" took the students weeks, and only then remained a work in progress, they said. Alito would simply shrug when asked if the latest version was right or wrong, as if to remind them how undefined the issue remained in the immediate post-Sept. 11 years, they said.
"This was one of those wide-open debates, on something so prevalent in our lives, that was going to define our time in history. And to discuss this with someone who would be involved in the issue was incredible," said former student Obadiah English, a Boston attorney who had watched from the law library several stories above downtown Newark, N.J., as the second World Trade Center tower collapsed.
Alito soon may be more involved in defining the balance between fighting terrorism and civil rights than any of his students may have predicted. President Bush nominated the New Jersey judge on Oct. 31 to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Former students said in separate interviews that Alito was friendly and outgoing but reserved: the type of professor you'd like to have a beer with after class, but never did. And yes, his conservatism was well known but was never in evidence in the classroom, they said.
"The judge kind of took it all in. He never imposed his beliefs as much as there were times when he could have. I didn't understand that then, that a judge shouldn't be discussing feelings. Times I wanted him to inject his thought process and opinion and it just didn't happen. He'd answer a question with a question, which showed his interest in probing the issues and our thoughts," said former student Joseph Arnold, a Philadelphia attorney who also took the class in 2003.
The survey class, with enrollment capped at 14, quickly filled. In 2004, Alito taught it a second time, again to a full classroom.
Alito encouraged students to take risks and rewarded those who did. Former student Robert Marasco argued in his final paper that torture should never be allowed. Alito gave him an "A" on the paper and for the class, Marasco said.
For Alito, the topic of terrorism and civil liberties came up in other encounters with students during the period as well. In a brief visit to Pepperdine University School of Law in March 2003, he taught three hourlong seminars on the subject to first-year students, according to documents and school officials.
Robert Cochran, a professor at the Malibu, Calif., law school who suggested the visit, said Alito came across as dispassionate, deliberate and objective. Yet, Cochran said, he betrayed a concern with the topic.
"He didn't take a particular stance on the issues but the way that he raised the questions indicated that he was aware that there was a danger that, in times of national crisis, we take unreasonable steps to curb civil liberties," Cochran said.
Patrick Hobbs, the dean of Seton Hall Law School, said the ongoing exercises were probably as helpful to Alito as they were to his students.
"It was going to be something he fully expected: to have those topics come up before him before the Third Circuit and that students would find engaging. So you get to put them in the incubator of the classroom and see how bright people deal with them. That can only help inform him as a judge," said Hobbs, a Democrat who supports Alito's nomination.
At Seton Hall, discussions touched on crises throughout American history -- including the Civil War and World War II -- and how government decisions made during those periods affected civil liberties, according to a course outline. Alito assigned a few students to lead each class discussion and stepped in only rarely. Classes were informal, even conversational, but often heated.
"Basically, he would set up the topic and then this conversation, the back-and-forth between students, that's what would drive the class. He kind of sat back and let us move it here and there," Marasco said.
"He was as interested in the material as we were and as interested in working through it as us. It wasn't like he had set it up, 'Here's what we will end up with and how we will get there,"' added Marasco, now an attorney in Newark.
Alito, who also taught a constitutional law class at Seton Hall and judged moot court competitions, hasn't been back to teach since last year. The school had to cancel the terrorism and civil liberties class last January after the would-be Alito replacement called Hobbs at the last minute and begged off.
"He said, 'Tomorrow morning, the president is introducing me as the new secretary of Homeland Security,"' Hobbs said of the prospective instructor, Michael Chertoff, a federal judge at the time.