Roberts, John G., Jr.
John G. Roberts, Jr.
At age 50, Roberts was the youngest chief justice since John Marshall sat on the bench in the early nineteenth century. He had served as a staff attorney in the Republican party administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, worked in private practice, and spent a short time as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. But he did not have a long trail of legal opinions, and court watchers waited to learn of the direction in which he would steer the highest court in the United States. Roberts was thought to be conservative by temperament but not necessarily by ideology. Those who looked into Roberts's background, however, agreed on one thing: he had a deep reverence for the law as an institution and as a profession, and his career had been marked by an ambition to advance to its highest levels.
Attended Catholic Boarding School
Born in Buffalo, New York, on January 27, 1955, Roberts was the son of steel mill manager John "Jack" Roberts and his wife Rosemary. He had three sisters. The family soon moved to Long Beach, Indiana, on the southern end of Lake Michigan, where Jack Roberts was sent by his employer, Bethlehem Steel, to help with the opening and administration of the electrical engineering section of a new plant in nearby Burns Harbor. The area was heavily Catholic, and John Roberts attended an elementary school affiliated with Notre Dame Church, where the family worshiped. For high school he was sent to a nearby Catholic academy, all-male La Lumiere School, in La Porte, Indiana. In a high school newspaper opinion piece he argued against making the school coeducational. "I would prefer to discuss Shakespeare's double entendre and the latus rectum of conic sections without a [b]londe giggling and blushing beside me," he wrote (according to Guy Taylor of the Washington Times).
Double entendres aside, Roberts was a top-flight student in high school. His expository essays, classmates remembered, were so persuasive that he could argue successfully in favor of even preposterous positions. He blazed through La Lumiere's Latin-language classes, demanded an independent study course in his senior year, and reached a point where he could translate Virgil's Aeneid as well as or better than his teacher. "It became very, very clear and evident when he first came here that he was a person who was destined to do big things," La Lumiere math teacher Lawrence Sullivan told the International Herald Tribune. A well-rounded student, Roberts also played football, won 12 out of 13 wrestling matches one year, and even took on the thankless role of Peppermint Patty in an all-male production of the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
On his high school admissions application, Taylor reported, Roberts wrote, "I won't be content to get a good job by getting a good education, I want to get the best job by getting the best education." The first La Lumiere student to attend Harvard University, Roberts continued to put that philosophy into practice there. Several of his undergraduate papers won coveted Harvard prizes; one of them, "The Utopian Conservative," was about statesman Daniel Webster and his devotion to his deeply held principles. At Harvard, Roberts was thought of as conservative, but he arrived at the school in the relatively apolitical 1970s and never struck classmates as in any way outspoken. He did little that would distract him from his focus on his studies, and he graduated summa cum laude in 1976. A devoted alumnus, he remained "romantic about all things Harvard," according to a law clerk quoted in Newsweek.
He immediately entered Harvard Law School, and he continued to avoid activist stances. The law school at the time was roiled by controversies over the relationship between the law and politics, but Roberts steered clear. Impressing professors of various political stripes, he was appointed managing editor of the Harvard Law Review, a plum post. "From our time in law review, it wasn't like John was a gung-ho conservative," lawyer Stephen Galebach told the International Herald Tribune. "He wasn't active. He wasn't a gung-ho liberal on liberal causes." Instead, Galebach said, Roberts focused "on the craftsmanship" of laws. Shortly after receiving his law degree, magna cum laude, in 1979, he was hospitalized, suffering from exhaustion.
Won Top Clerkships
With his stellar credentials, Roberts had no trouble lining up top jobs in the next stage of his legal apprenticeship. He became a clerk for Judge Henry J. Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City in 1979 and then for Associate Supreme Court Justice (later Chief Justice) William Rehnquist the following year. The demanding Friendly was a strong influence on Roberts, who (according to Newsweek) spoke of his mentor with "deep reverence" and "a certain twinkle in his eye," and sometimes quoted him in his own opinions as an appeals court judge. With the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, Roberts went to work for the new Republican administration. He became special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith in 1981 and was elevated to the position of Reagan's associate counsel in 1982, which made him part of the White House staff.
The energetic Roberts had little patience with the argument commonly made by Supreme Court justices that the high court was overburdened, writing in a memo quoted by Time that "[s]o long as the court views itself as ultimately responsible for governing all aspects of our society, it will, understandably, be overworked." In 1986 Roberts left government to take a position at the prestigious Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson LLP, rising to the position of head of the firm's appellate practice division. The new administration of President George H.W. Bush, however, brought him back to the White House in 1989 to become principal deputy solicitor general of the United States. In this position he became a frequent visitor to the halls of the Supreme Court as he often argued the government's position. He appeared before the high court more than 30 times.
Roberts's writings during his two periods of service in Republican administrations emerged as sources of controversy during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings preceding his elevation to the Supreme Court. He favored narrow interpretations of civil-rights and voting-rights statutes, and he argued in favor of attempts to reverse several decades of Supreme Court decisions affirming and extending the concept of separation of church and state. He wrote in support of religious groups seeking the right to assemble on school grounds, and he opined that a court decision striking down an Alabama law providing for a moment of silence in schools was "indefensible." An unsuccessful government argument authored by Roberts contended that a Presbyterian minister should be allowed to address a Rhode Island public high school graduation.
On the hot-button issue of abortion, Roberts wrote in a 1990 Justice Department memo (quoted in Time) that the original Supreme Court decision mandating a right to abortion was "wrongly decided," and his opinions on other issues relating to women's rights also appeared strongly conservative. When a group of Republican congresswomen wrote a letter to President Bush arguing in favor of payequity legislation, Roberts wrote caustically (again according to Time) that "[t]heir slogan may as well be, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to their gender," parodying Karl Marx's famous formulation about worker pay. Roberts would later argue that many of his writings executed in a political context should not be taken as indications of how he would rule in a court of law.
Lent Support to Gay-Rights Group
Roberts was nominated to the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals in 1991, but his nomination stalled in a struggle between Bush and the Democratic-controlled Senate in the fall of 1992, in the waning days of Bush's term. Roberts was seriously disappointed by this frustration of one of his life-time ambitions, and he endured another blow when he suffered a serious and still unexplained seizure while golfing in January of 1993. The episode may have been due to stress, but it did not recur. He returned to Hogan & Hartson, at a salary that eventually exceeded $1 million a year. Roberts and his wife Jane married in 1996 and adopted two children, Josephine and John. Jane Roberts was a member of an anti-abortion group called Feminists for Life. But Roberts's reputation as a staunch conservative was muddied considerably when he did consulting work for a group that ultimately succeeded in overturning a Colorado law that struck down local gay-rights measures.
Roberts gained a reputation as one of Washington's top lawyers when it came to shepherding a case through the upper layers of the American court hierarchy. He and his family attended the Catholic Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, and he enjoyed opera, golf, and the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. Despite his high-powered position, it was widely reported when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, he could often be seen mowing his own lawn. The return of the Republicans to power in 2000 finally gave Roberts his second chance at the federal court bench; after a second nomination ending in a partisan impasse in 2001, he was finally nominated and confirmed for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in May of 2003.
Almost immediately, speculation began to swirl that Roberts would be in the running to replace one of the aging members of the Supreme Court. According to his own testimony, he grew in the job, telling a friend quoted in Newsweek that being a judge was "much harder than I thought it was going to be. The questions are much harder and closer than I thought." He sent a strong signal in favor of states' rights when he dissented in a ruling upholding the application of the Endangered Species act to a California development that threatened an endangered toad species. After Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement from the Supreme Court, President Bush nominated Roberts as her replacement on July 19, 2005. After the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist on September 3 of that year, the Roberts nomination was shifted to that seat. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a 78-22 vote.
The first case to come before the Roberts court in late 2005 involved an Oregon law legalizing assisted suicide, and Roberts had the responsibility of steering the court through cases affecting a host of other controversial issues. Abortion regulations, the application of the death penalty, church-state questions, and states' rights issues were all on the court's docket for the 2005–06 term, and the critical issue of government wartime powers seemed likely to confront the court soon as national divisions deepened over the Iraq war and over government antiterrorist measures that came into conflict with established civil-liberties safe-guards. The nature of the consensus Roberts would shape as Chief Justice remained to be seen. But few doubted his commitment to the Supreme Court as an institution—he had said during his Senate confirmation hearings that whenever he ascended the steps of the Court building to argue a case, he had felt a lump in his throat.
Christian Century, August 23, 2005.
International Herald Tribune, July 22, 2005.
Newsweek, August 1, 2005; August 8, 2005; August 15, 2005.
Time, September 5, 2005.
Washington Times, August 16, 2005.
"The Justices of the Supreme Court," http://www.supremecourtus.gov/about/biographiescurrent.pdf (December 29, 2005).