John G. Roberts ’76, a respected litigator and conservative appeals court judge, has been nominated by President George W. Bush to the post of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
If confirmed, Roberts, who also graduated from Harvard Law School (HLS) in 1979, would become the nation’s 109th justice, replacing outgoing justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who announced her retirement from the high court earlier this month.
At a prime-time televised announcement in the Cross Hall of the White House Tuesday night, Bush praised Roberts, who he hopes will be deemed acceptable to both sides of the political aisle.
“John Roberts has devoted his entire professional life to the cause of justice. And he’s widely admired for his intellect, his sound judgment, and personal decency,” Bush said.
Roberts, 50, has spent the last two years as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he has earned a reputation as a conservative. He has, however, yet to weigh in on many of the most divisive issues that the Court may face in the coming years, including abortion and the death penalty.
His only known public statement on abortion came in a 1991 brief he signed on behalf of the first Bush administration while he was Deputy Solicitor General. The brief said that “we continue to believe that Roe [v. Wade] was wrongly decided and should be overruled.”
Roberts has clerked for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist while Rehnquist was an associate justice, and has won over two dozen cases before the Supreme Court, earning a reputation as one of D.C.’s finest litigators.
Roberts will face nomination hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee likely next month or in September. After those hearings, Roberts must be approved for the Court by a simple majority of senators.
If confirmed, Roberts would tint the already Harvard-packed Court a yet-deeper shade of Crimson.
Roberts would become the seventh member of the Court to attend Harvard. David H. Souter ’61 graduated from the College, while Souter, Stephen G. Breyer, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy hold HLS degrees. Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended HLS for two years, while Chief Justice Rehnquist holds an M.A. from Harvard in Government.
AT FIRST A HISTORIAN
Roberts graduated from the College with a summa cum laude degree in History in only three years.
“John was a serious student,” said Robert N. Bush ’77, who was Roberts’ roommate for three years, first in Straus Hall and then in Leverett House. “There were no parties, but John did have a social life.”
The son of a steel executive, Roberts attended private school in Indiana. By the time he arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1973, he had developed a passion for history.
“John loved history, and said he’d be a history professor, but he also mentioned law,” Bush said.
Bush, who has no relation to the President, said that he has not seen Roberts since graduation. But he said he has many fond memories of life with the future nominee, which include playing Nerf football in their room and hearing Roberts endlessly quote the 18th-century literary critic Samuel Johnson.
And though a top student, Roberts complained about classes he did not like having to take—which in his case were science classes.
“John took ‘Physics for Poets’ and grumbled the whole time,” Bush said.
Bush remembers Roberts visiting professors frequently and attending church regularly.
And there was one thing Roberts could never do without—Pepto Bismol. “He was a great consumer of Pepto Bismol and always had a bottle or two on hand,” said Bush.
He also remembers Roberts as a stickler for formality.
“When he was considering law schools, John removed Stanford from his list because the Stanford interviewer was wearing sandals and didn’t have a tie,” Bush said.
William P. LaPiana ‘74, a pre-law and history tutor in Leverett House when Roberts lived there, earlier this month recalled Roberts as a “hard working and happy undergraduate who loved studying history.”
But what LaPiana remembers most about Roberts are his self-deprecating jokes.
“He had gotten a wonderful grade and a glowing comment on a term paper in a course on American Intellectual History,” LaPiana said. “Afterwards, he walked into my office and said ‘I think I can get my head through the door.’”
FROM HISTORIAN TO LAWYER
Immediately after graduating from the College, Roberts entered HLS.
There he became the Managing Editor of the Harvard Law Review, a position that, according to classmate Paul K. Rowe ’76, “you didn’t get unless you were among the top 4 or 5 intellectually in the class.”
Roberts’ colleagues on the Law Review spoke highly of him.
Elizabeth R. Geise described him earlier this month as an “honest, forthright, decent, and fair person who was always there on time, always did his job, and was kind to everyone.”
“He was somebody who got along with everyone, who was obviously very bright but not aggressive,” Rowe, who is also a Crimson editor, said earlier this month. “He had a Midwestern reserve about not showing off how smart he was.”
Rowe added that the students on the Law Review always thought of Roberts as fair, especially on politically divisive issues. “There was a certain amount of left versus right, but John was someone that everyone could talk to and respected.”
“I never thought of him as an ideologue,” Lindsay A. Connor, who was also on the Law Review with Roberts, wrote in an e-mail two weeks ago. However Connor said that he does not know how Roberts has changed since he left Harvard 26 years ago.
One colleague said that even during his time on the Law Review, Roberts was on the conservative side of the political spectrum.
Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law David B. Wilkins ’77 said earlier this month that Roberts was “more conservative than the typical Harvard Law student in the 1970s.” However, Wilkins said that today’s political climate is very different from that of the mid-seventies.
“90 percent of the Harvard Law School class is more conservative than the typical Harvard Law student in the 1970s,” he said.
FROM THE BAR TO THE BENCH
After graduating from HLS, Roberts went to Washington, where he clerked for William H. Rehnquist, who at the time was an associate justice on the Supreme Court,
Roberts later worked in the offices of the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, in addition to serving as Principal Deputy Solicitor General under Kenneth W. Starr in the first Bush Administration.
In between stints with the government, Roberts worked at the law firm Hogan & Hartson, where he established himself as a top appellate lawyer with an impressive record—he has argued a total of 39 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 25 of them.
Bush nominated him to the D.C. Circuit Court in January 2003. It was the third nomination for Roberts, who had previously been nominated to that court by both Bushes. The third time proved the charm—Roberts was confirmed in May, 2003.
Roberts’ circuit court confirmation hearings were highlighted by glowing accounts of Roberts’ skills as a jurist.
The American Bar Association gave him the rating of “Well Qualified” without reservation, the highest possible mark for a jurist.
A bipartisan group of 156 members of the D.C. Bar also sent a letter encouraging the Judiciary Committee to approve Roberts.
“He is one of the very best and most highly respected appellate lawyers in the nation, with a deserved reputation as a brilliant writer and oral advocate,” the letter said. “He is also a wonderful professional colleague both because of his enormous skills and because of his unquestioned integrity and fair-mindedness.”
“In my view...there is no better appellate advocate than John Roberts,” Walter E. Dellinger, III, who served as Solicitor General under President Bill Clinton, told the Judiciary Committee.
—Staff writer Adam M. Guren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.