Before she hoisted controversial flags, KY native Martha-Ann Alito was a Wildcat

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Kentucky native and University of Kentucky alum Martha-Ann Alito is at the center of one of the US Supreme Court’s biggest controversies.

Due to highly debated flags allegedly put up by Alito, her husband, US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, has faced calls to recuse himself from potential Supreme Court cases involving the US Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and the 2020 presidential election.

The justice has been adamant in his refusal to recuse, emphasizing Martha-Ann’s role in putting the flags, which have ties to the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. They’ve been seen in rallies supporting former President Donald Trump, who’s likely to win the GOP’s presidential nomination this summer.

An upside-down US flag flew at the Alito home in Northern Virginia in early 2021. And a second flag with ties to the Jan. 6 riot, the “Appeal to Heaven,” dates back to the Revolutionary War and flew at the family’s New Jersey vacation home.

In letters to Congress this week, the justice reiterated his flag-hoisting wife is to blame, and he supports her right to fly them.

“My wife is a private citizen, and she possesses the same First Amendment rights as every American,” the justice wrote. “She makes her own decisions, and I have always respected her right to do so.”

He added: “My wife is fond of flying flags. I am not.”

Martha-Ann Alito, formerly Martha-Ann Bomgardner received her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from UK in 1975, according to a copy of the University of Kentucky yearbook from that year reviewed Wednesday by the Herald-Leader.

A commencement program from the same year lists her hometown as Wiesbaden, Germany – Bomgardner’s father served in the Air Force. Per a 2010 Herald-Leader story, Bomgardner studied textiles and merchandising before switching her major to comparative literature two semesters before graduation.

She then received a master’s degree in library science at the UK School of Library and Information Science in 1977, listing her home as New Jersey.

Martha-Ann Alito, formerly Martha-Ann Bomgardner was among several graduates honored at UK’s 108th annual commencement ceremony in 1975.
Martha-Ann Alito, formerly Martha-Ann Bomgardner was among several graduates honored at UK’s 108th annual commencement ceremony in 1975.

She met Samuel Alito working as a librarian at the US attorney’s office in Newark, New Jersey, where he was working as an assistant US attorney. They married five years after their first date.

Justice Alito is considered one of six conservative-leaning justices on the nation’s highest court. He was appointed to the bench by former GOP president George W. Bush in 2006.

In 2010, Martha-Ann Alito was a guest of honor at UK’s Singletary Center.

There were no talks of patriotism or flags that evening, according to Herald-Leader coverage of her appearance.

Instead, the future Mrs. Alito, sporting a sparkly red-white-and-blue flag brooch, reminisced on her time in Lexington and growing up in Floyd County at the event hosted by UK’s College of Law and a now-inactive nonprofit called the Hellenic Ideals Program of the Bluegrass dedicated to promoting “ancient Hellenic principles.”

According to a 2010 Herald-Leader report on the event, Martha-Ann spoke of her roots in Fort Knox – her father served in the Air Force – as well as Floyd County. She said her time in Kentucky shaped her, joking that her New Jersey native mother would often complain about how much time she spent barefoot.

“She just couldn’t keep me in shoes,” Martha-Ann Alito said. “I took that as such a point of pride.”

Alice Forgy Kerr, a Republican who served the Lexington area in the Kentucky Senate for more than 20 years, sang the national anthem at the event.

The former senator disagreed strongly with Martha-Ann Alito’s decision to hang the flag upside down, stating that she wouldn’t do that in any circumstances. Forgy Kerr also joked that during her national anthem performance, she “would have made sure the flag was not hanging upside down.”

“I know we have the right to do whatever with the flag because of the men and women who fought for our country; we are given by them the right to do that to our flag, perhaps to even burn our flag,” Forgy Kerr said. “But I think most Americans would not be for turning the flag upside down for any reason.”

Forgy Kerr said she and Martha-Ann likely have very different perspectives regarding the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as she was “concerned that it occurred” and that an attempted insurrection took place.

Thinking through the ethics of spouses involved in the judiciary is nothing new for Forgy Kerr, as her ex-husband served as a clerk to a federal judge. She said that judicial ethics “ought to somehow apply to spouses.”

Even so, Forgy Kerr disagreed with calls for Alito to recuse himself from certain cases.

“I think most spouses would say they don’t have much control of the other spouse,” she said. “I imagine, as strong as those two people are, that they can have divided opinions, or he can certainly maintain neutral opinions.”

Martha-Ann Alito was invited to speak by then-Kentucky Supreme Court deputy chief justice Mary Noble, of Lexington. Noble did not respond to requests for comment this week.

“I thought it would be interesting, if we were talking about judicial people, to hear from the family, instead of the judge,” Noble said before the 2010 event. “My husband often tells me that the perspective of the family members of a judge is often overlooked.

At the event, Alito expressed frustration of national media coverage of her husband at the time of his confirmation process to the Supreme Court in 2006.

She said she tried to ignore the “daily ad hominem attacks which bordered on the ridiculous” against her husband. She also recalled reporters scrambling up and down her street trying to interview neighbors and family during that process.

Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, left, and Justice Mary Noble, right, spoke with Justice Samuel Alito and Martha-Ann Alito on Saturday at UK.
Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, left, and Justice Mary Noble, right, spoke with Justice Samuel Alito and Martha-Ann Alito on Saturday at UK.

Martha-Ann and her husband also attended a reception that weekend, where the pair were named Kentucky Colonels and hobnobbed with many of the area’s legal elite.

That included former Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton, who recalled Martha-Ann as “friendly, warm and very talkative” in that setting. He also said that her speech reflected pride in Lexington.

“My memory was that, in terms of relating to the students, she was very outgoing and warm and engaged with the students,” Minton said. “She is quite proud of her Kentucky connection. She had a very warm feeling about Lexington and UK.”

Longtime University of Kentucky College of Law Professor Paul Salamanca also recalled a talkative Martha-Ann, contrasting with the markedly reserved justice.

“She’s a lot more extroverted than her husband is, who’s somewhat of a quiet guy,” Salamanca said.