Roberts Was Ready at Every Turn

Times Staff Writers

Three Republican presidents have shepherded him at the White House. Two powerful federal judges have mentored him in the law. And one of the capital’s most prestigious law firms helped make him a millionaire. At every step in his 25-year legal career in Washington, it seems good fortune has traveled with him.

Even his first appearance in the nation’s capital, where as a young man he’d walk each morning from his cramped Capitol Hill apartment to his new job as a Supreme Court clerk, could not have been timed more fortuitously.

The year was 1980, the dawn of the Reagan revolution.

His boss was William H. Rehnquist, the future chief justice of the United States.


And for a young conservative, bright but conforming, modest and deeply religious, a workaholic content with weekends in the office, the only son of a steel plant manager, raised on the shore of Lake Michigan, John G. Roberts Jr. had arrived.

A quarter-century later, Harvard-educated and Washington-trained, at age 50 he now stands on the brink of where he seems to have been headed all along. President Bush nominated him last week to the Supreme Court.

“Opportunity is important. Chance is important,” said Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), a classmate of Roberts at Harvard Law School. “But opportunity and chance also favor the prepared mind. And he’s clearly the kind of person who was prepared to serve.”

Others reflect on the trim, smiling, blue-eyed lawyer, the dark-suited conservative who married and became a father later in life, the friend who is hard to pull away from his law books for an occasional game of golf, and recall someone who meticulously molded himself into the perfect nominee.

He covered every base: Clerking for Rehnquist. Working for the Reagan White House counsel. Deputy solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush. A lawyer with more than three dozen appearances before the Supreme Court. A seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

At Harvard he majored in history, but smoothly turned to the law. He found it better suited his analytical interests.

William J. Kayatta Jr. worked under Roberts on the Harvard Law Review in the late 1970s. “When you walk in the door of the Law Review office on your first day, the stairs are on your left,” Kayatta said. “As you go up the steps, to your left along the wall begins this long line of pictures and each picture is a class portrait of each year’s Law Review staff. Underneath each picture are the names. Felix Frankfurter. Learned Hand.

“By the time you get upstairs on your first day you have this sense of, like, wow. Kids going up those stairs are going to stop at our class picture.”

Case of the Orange

Roberts was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in tiny Long Beach, Ind. His father ran the electrical department at the local Bethlehem Steel plant. The devout Roman Catholic family -- Roberts, his parents and his three sisters -- shared a brown split-level brick home near the lake.

At La Lumiere, a rigorous, Catholic-sponsored boys prep school nearby, he sported thick brown hair and the traditional plaid pants, long-sleeve sweater and dark tie.

But he found ways to stand out. He studied Latin and classical literature. He captained the school football team, despite his small size and clunky feet. He waited tables at the school dining hall. Summers he hauled cables for his father at the steel mill.

Two episodes from his youth say as much about the boy as the man.

To gain admittance to La Lumiere, the 13-year-old wrote a letter in December 1968 that was remarkable for its drive and focus.

“I won’t be content to get a good job by getting a good education,” it said in part, written in neat, evenly spaced cursive letters. “I want to get the best job by getting the best education.”

There was another young John in those days too, the one at the Notre Dame Catholic elementary school in Michigan City, Ind., who one day found himself sitting in the principal’s office.

His parents were called in and John was asked to explain how an orange had come to be smashed against the freshly painted cafeteria wall.

“Did you throw the orange?” his parents asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Did it hit the wall?”

“Yes. It splattered all over the place. But it wasn’t my fault.”

His parents looked confused. “You threw the orange. You hit the wall. But it wasn’t your fault?”

He explained: “Tommy ducked. It’s Tommy’s fault. I had no intention of hitting the wall. I had every intention of hitting him in the face.”

Young John Roberts, already the litigator.

Bob MacLaverty, a school chum of Roberts and now a Chicago banker, loves that story.

“It’s so perfectly John,” he said. “His mind and his sense of reason are so organized and logical. So of course it wasn’t his fault.”

A Legal Natural

Roberts graduated summa cum laude at Harvard in 1976 after just three years and entered the law school that fall. He was chosen managing editor of the Harvard Law Review, which meant a full course load burdened with another 40 to 50 hours a week editing submissions from law professors and others.

Stephen H. Galebach, a classmate who worked for Roberts at the review, recalled that Roberts’ hair was often long and unkempt -- not to be fashionable but because he’d forgotten to visit the barber. His thoughts drifted elsewhere.

To the law, Galebach said. “He was just a natural at it.”

All this was mere preparation for real life, and the nation’s smartest law graduates were frantically applying for clerkships. “Our highest aspirations at that time were just to clerk for a good judge,” Galebach said. “John got the chance to clerk twice.”

Roberts’ bosses were two of the most esteemed judges in the country. The first was U.S. Circuit Judge Henry J. Friendly in New York, a taskmaster who expected his clerks to be versed on every nuance of every case that reached his bench.

Roberts’ roommate at the time, a fellow Harvard Law alum named Charles Davidow who was clerking for a different judge, said Roberts’ apprenticeship was a double-edged sword. The position was coveted because of Friendly’s exalted reputation but was also tough.

Yet the more demanding, the more Roberts learned.

Friendly “was the gold standard,” Davidow said. “It was one of the most intellectually rigorous clerkships around.”

Roberts made just $19,000 a year. The window of their dismal apartment on New York’s East Side looked out on the Bellevue mental hospital. Roberts had no car, little social life and, frankly, Davidow said, only one interest: the law.

So he was a nerd?

“No, I don’t perceive it that way,” Davidow said. “He was reasonably quiet, not a big partyer. He was a fairly conservative kind of guy. A terrific sense of humor. Very dry. He tended to appreciate the absurdity of things. He was understated. He was clever.”

In 1980 Roberts moved to Washington to work for Rehnquist, then an associate justice on the Supreme Court, appointed by President Nixon.

Reagan’s conservatism was beginning to catch on. But Roberts kept his head down. His friends remember him as more the budding lawyer than the young politico, more interested in the law than the political process. The image that sticks with his friends is of Roberts walking studiously each morning to the Supreme Court, single-minded, almost unaware of America’s great political shift to the right.

Another Harvard pal, Richard J. Lazarus, who shared the small Capitol Hill apartment with him, can recall Roberts letting down his guard only once. At an election-year party in their apartment, Lazarus, a Democrat, placed a toy donkey on the television set. Roberts put up an elephant.

The elephant, of course, won by a landslide.

Memos Show Style

There was no better place for a young conservative lawyer than the new White House counsel’s office. The country was changing, and on many of the day’s issues he found himself in a position not only to speak up, but to make a difference. In memos to the administration, he often exhibited a bit of flair.

He mocked a Georgia Democratic congressman who proposed to Reagan a “conference on power sharing” after a 1983 Supreme Court ruling limited Congress’ power to oversee federal regulations.

“There already has, of course, been a ‘conference on power sharing,’ ” Roberts wrote. “It took place in Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall in 1787.”

Roberts also took a dim view of several civil rights proposals. He endorsed an anti-busing bill sponsored by then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

The government had taken the position that Congress could not limit court-ordered busing as a remedy for school segregation. Roberts disagreed, saying the evidence showed that “busing promotes segregation rather than remedying it, by precipitating white flight.” The legislation went nowhere.

But he saved his greatest scorn for a proposal by then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger to create an intermediate appeals court to relieve an overworked Supreme Court.

“My own view is [it] is a terrible idea,” Roberts wrote. “If the justices truly think they are overworked, the cure lies close at hand.” Then he added, in a remark that he might have cause to rethink:

“While some of the tales of woe emanating from the court are enough to bring tears to the eyes, it is true that only Supreme Court justices and schoolchildren expect to and do take the entire summer off.”

Before Court, Flashcards

Roberts left the White House in 1986 for private practice with the firm Hogan & Hartson, not far from the White House. He was 31.

But when George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Reagan, the White House tapped Roberts to be chief deputy to Solicitor Gen. Kenneth W. Starr. Roberts and Starr led a small team of conservative lawyers who were determined to overturn Roe vs. Wade and to restore some form of prayer to public schools.

Roberts’ work for Starr is the period Senate Democrats are most likely to scrutinize, because it was the one time he advocated before the Supreme Court major changes in the law. He did so as an attorney representing the administration’s position.

The legal position taken by Starr’s office that is most often quoted is: “Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled.”

When senators a decade later asked about the office’s stance in that case, Roberts replied that his personal views weren’t necessarily the same as his client’s.

In a case from Rhode Island, Starr and Roberts defended a school principal’s decision to invite a cleric to give a graduation invocation. They argued that a “ceremonial acknowledgment of religion” in public schools or government buildings should be upheld.

To its surprise, the Bush administration lost both Supreme Court cases even though eight of the nine justices were Republican appointees.

Roberts’ years at the Justice Department meant frequent appearances before the Supreme Court, though typically in mundane cases and often only for 10-minute arguments.

But one episode stood out.

Robert Long, a young assistant to Starr in 1990, was to argue a case before the Supreme Court. But the Friday before the Monday argument, he learned that his application to the Supreme Court bar had not yet been approved. A court clerk phoned to say: “You’d better send somebody else up here.”

Long had spent weeks preparing for the case, which involved a subtle point of federal bankruptcy law. Roberts was selected as last-minute stand-in for the expert, even though he was scheduled to handle a separate argument before the federal appeals court the same day.

Roberts spent the weekend boning up on the case, handled the arguments in both courts and won both cases.

In 1992, Roberts experienced a rare setback in a career marked by distinguished and relentless advancement: His presidential nomination to the federal appeals court fell victim to the election of Bill Clinton and was never acted upon.

“It is the kind of opportunity you are not sure will ever come back. To be that close and not have it materialize ... it was quite a disappointment,” former law partner David Leitch said. “I think it deepened his resolve” to develop a “top-notch Supreme Court litigation practice.”

Which he did. Returning to Hogan & Hartson, he continued to appear frequently before the Supreme Court. Most of his cases were business disputes. They brought to 39 the number of cases he argued before the high court, about half of them as a private lawyer and the rest for the government.

In 1994, he represented the owners of a barge that had punched a hole in a tunnel, flooding buildings. The next year, he represented a nearly bankrupt options trader who wanted an arbitrator, not a court, to decide how much he owed. He represented an insurance company against policyholders.

But if his cases were not particularly dazzling, Roberts gained the respect of lawyers who followed the court.

“When I was a clerk [at the Supreme Court], we would rate the lawyers, sort of as a parlor game. And consensus among the clerks was that Roberts was one of the two or three best oral advocates,” said Bradford Berenson, a Washington lawyer who used to work for the current Bush administration.

“He was very smooth, low-key, confident and substantive. He was masterful at answering the justices’ questions and using them to make his points.”

Lawyers at the Supreme Court do not make dramatic arguments like those before a jury. Rather, they stand before the nine justices and mostly answer their questions. The difficulty is holding firm amid the barrage.

His arguments were “difficult to tear apart,” former law partner Gregory Garre said. “To do that over and over, where you might have gotten 50 questions from different justices, was what made John extraordinary.”

Roberts was known for intense preparation, making dozens of notecards. He tried to think up every possible question a justice might throw at him, writing that on one side. On the other side, he’d note an answer to bolster his position.

He would then “shuffle them up and continuously go through them,” Garre said. He would also conduct moot courts to practice his argument.

Roberts was skilled in making a position sound eminently reasonable -- even in cases where many thought it wasn’t.

One such example was his defense of a Hawaiian statute that said only members of the racial class of “Native Hawaiians” could vote in certain statewide elections. He argued that native traditions should take precedence over the rights of citizens rendered ineligible to vote. The Supreme Court ultimately held that the statute violated the 15th Amendment prohibition against racial classifications in voting -- although Roberts won the votes of two justices.

“John, as an advocate, was the sort of ultimate reasonable man standing up there, reassuring everyone that his position had no dangerous implications,” said Roy T. Englert Jr., a former assistant solicitor general. “Now, as a judge, he has a different job, and it is his job not to hide any dangerous implications.”

During his years in private practice, Roberts’ personal world changed.

Concerned about his lack of a social life, friends fixed him up with a blind date at the Delaware shore. She was Jane Sullivan, an Irish Catholic from the Bronx and, like him, a corporate lawyer in Washington. In 1996, they wed at St. Patrick’s Church in Washington. At the reception, guests recalled, they were already talking about a family.

Both were in their 40s, and both devout Catholics. Jane Sullivan Roberts has been active in the antiabortion movement, a fact that some on both sides of the issue take to mean that John Roberts also opposes abortion.

When no children came along, they declined to take special fertility measures, friends said, and instead turned to adoption. Their first attempts failed, some heartbreakingly at the last minute.

“But they never became depressed or bitter,” said one of Jane’s closest friends, who remembers going to a dinner party at their home right after one of the adoption attempts fell through. “They were always sure it was going to work out. They bore it as a very strong couple.”

They prevailed at last several years ago, becoming the parents of two babies from separate birth mothers: Josie, now 5, and Jack, 4.

Hitting All the Notes

In 2003, Roberts joined the D.C. Court of Appeals, a 10-member court that is often called the nation’s second-highest court because legal challenges to federal regulations are often filed in Washington.

But the court offers relatively few clues for those trying to predict how a judge would behave on the high court. Unlike other appellate courts, the D.C. circuit rarely gets involved in controversies such as the death penalty, abortion, religion or gay rights. And generally, the judges agree on the result.

Last week, a statistical analysis by two legal researchers found that of the 191 cases Roberts had ruled on, he had voted slightly more often with two Clinton appointees than with the court’s most conservative Reagan appointee. He agreed with Judge Merrick Garland 95% of the time and Judge David Tatel 94% of the time, while he agreed slightly less often (92%) with Judge David Sentelle, a Reagan appointee.

But Roberts has shown a willingness to back the Bush White House in disputes involving national security and the war on terrorism.

Last year, he was part of a 3-0 ruling that threw out a nearly $1-billion verdict won by 17 former U.S. prisoners of war who had sued Iraq for torture and abuse during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In a separate opinion, Roberts said he agreed that the president had the authority to cancel such verdicts because the U.S. now controlled Iraq.

Two weeks ago, he was part of a 3-0 ruling that the Geneva Convention does not protect the “enemy combatants” being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

When Roberts appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee this summer, he will argue why he should be confirmed. But this time, he will be attorney and client both. The record suggests he will acquit himself well.

There was speculation that the president would name a woman, or perhaps a Latino, to the post. But in the end, it was Roberts who filled the White House criteria, lawyer Berenson says:

“Exceptional intellect. Exceptional temperament. A conservative judicial philosophy. Youth and confirmability. He had all those things, and I doubt there was another candidate who did.”


Times staff writers P.J. Hufstutter, Catherine Saillant and Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.