Cover Story

Roberts rules

President Bush has picked for the Supreme Court one of Washington's top legal minds and resumés. But John Roberts' conservative record may tell us less than many think about the type of justice he will be

Issue: "John Roberts: Bush's pick," July 30, 2005

Until his confirmation to the federal bench in 2003, Washington, D.C., attorney John Roberts Jr. dropped in regularly at 214 Massachusetts Avenue N.E. to hassle other lawyers.

OK, not hassle exactly. Mr. Roberts, then in private practice, volunteered at the Heritage Foundation, teaming with conservative attorneys like Miguel Estrada and Jay Sekulow for "moot courts"-mock arguments in which lawyers gear up for the real thing by practicing before respected peers who play the role of fire-breathing judges.

During the moot courts, says Todd Gaziano, director of Heritage's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, "we used to tease him." Mr. Roberts had been tapped for the federal bench in 1992-a nod Democrats let die a procedural death-and his 2001 nomination was still on hold, so "we'd say, 'You know, with a nomination that's 11 years old and pending, this might be as close as you're ever going to get to being a federal judge.'"

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Mr. Roberts' replies were always good-natured and self-deprecating, Mr. Gaziano recalls: "He'd laugh and say, 'You may be right . . . I'll just play the role today.'"

Now it appears likely that the strict constructionist will ascend to star billing in the federal judiciary. Most conservatives cheered on July 19 when President Bush announced the nomination of Mr. Roberts to be the 109th justice of the Supreme Court.

Liberals, meanwhile, groaned, not so much over Mr. Roberts' judicial philosophy as the fact that he makes a mighty skinny target. His record-razor-edged legal intellect, fair-minded civility, past Democratic endorsements, and a complete absence of culturally polarizing law-journal articles carrying his byline-left liberals lobbing softballs at a nominee they'd been hoping to nuke.

Still, despite conservative optimism, Mr. Roberts is something of an ideological mystery. The 49 opinions he's written since his unanimous Senate confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2003 reveal little of his leanings on issues important to conservatives, such as abortion and school choice. Although he is a church-going Catholic married to a sometime pro-life activist, his own abortion views are publicly unknown.

Mr. Roberts' Catholic roots stretch back to childhood. Born Jan. 27, 1955, in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Roberts grew up in Long Beach, Ind., compiling a personal resumé that reads like a hard-work-in-the-heartland success story. The only son in a family with three daughters, he attended La Lumiere, a small Roman Catholic boys' school, and became captain of the football team. As a young man he worked summers in a steel mill to help pay his way through Harvard College, a four-year stint he capped off summa cum laude in 1976.

In 1979, Mr. Roberts graduated from Harvard Law School, finishing at the top of his class. He moved to Washington, D.C., where he clerked first for 2nd Circuit appeals court Judge Henry Friendly, then for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. In 1981 he signed on with the Reagan Justice Department, serving as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith, and later in the White House Counsel's Office as associate counsel to the president.

Today, Mr. Roberts and his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, are the parents of two adopted children, Josie, 5, and Jack, 4. Mrs. Roberts serves as legal counsel on a pro bono basis for Feminists for Life of America (FFLA) and was executive vice president on the group's board of directors from 1995 to 1999. The Summer 2002 edition of The American Feminist, FFLA's quarterly, lists her as a member of the "Elizabeth Cady Stanton Circle" of fundraisers for raising $1,000-$2,499.

Now a technology transactions attorney for the D.C. firm Shaw Pittman, Mrs. Roberts also serves on the board of trustees of Holy Cross, a Catholic university, and on the board of governors of the John Carroll Society, an association of Catholic laity "united in their desire for an ever deepening and enriching knowledge of their faith and in service to the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C."

Mr. Roberts, meanwhile, is a "traditional Catholic" who does not talk about his religion, Washington lawyer Shannen Coffin told the Chicago Tribune. "He's a guy who'll show up for Mass on Sunday and that's sort of his own business," said Mr. Coffin, who attends the same church.

But Mr. Roberts has at least once made it his business to defend the expression of religious faith. In 2000, while in private practice, Mr. Roberts defended the Connelly School of the Holy Child, a Catholic institution tucked into an affluent Maryland suburb. After some neighborhood residents learned that local officials had granted the school certain religious land-use exemptions, they banded together and sued, claiming the government had violated the establishment clause of the Constitution.


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