Roberts Cut Legal Teeth Early

When John G. Roberts Jr. ’76 left Harvard College—graduating one year ahead of his class—a roommate surmised that the next time he saw Roberts, “it would be in a picture from the White House.”

As it turns out, the roommate was practically dead on—the next time Roberts’ roommate saw him was when President George W. Bush introduced the D.C. Circuit Judge to the nation as his nominee to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

But long before climbing the Washington ladder, Roberts was a straight-laced conservative in Leverett House with plans to preside over a lecture hall—not the nation’s highest court.

“He’s a very bright, very focused person who has always had a good sense of humor, hasn’t taken himself too seriously, and has been very accomplished—from graduating summa cum laude in three years to law school, clerkships, jobs, and private practice,” said Steven F. Hirsch ’77, who met Roberts during their freshman year and later lived in Leverett, too. “I’m struck by the continuity there—he really is the same person he was 30-plus years ago.”

His small group of friends—very few people from the classes of 1976 or 1977 contacted by The Crimson knew him well—describe him as someone who found an intellectual home on the banks of the Charles.

“He was and is romantic about all things Harvard,” said Donald S. Scherer, a friend from law school who has remained in touch with Roberts.

THE GENTLEMAN SCHOLAR

Roberts arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1973, when he moved into Straus D-21 with Robert N. Bush ’77 and Patrick Ross Jr. ’77. By the time he set foot in Harvard Yard, he was a budding conservative.

“He pretty much knew who he was, and his principles were all established by the time he arrived at college,” says Bush, who was Roberts’ roommate for three years, adding that Roberts “did not come off as a staunch conservative.”

Hirsch recalls that though they disagreed politically, discussions were never hostile.

“He has never been a zealot about his positions,” says Hirsch. “He’s always been open-minded and had friends with a lot of different political viewpoints but never proselytized people to his position.”

Bush expressed similar sentiments, and was surprised to learn that Roberts was working in the Reagan administration in the eighties.

“I wasn’t surprised that he had gone directly into a significant government position” Bush says. “But I hadn’t thought of him as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.”

But while his work ethic and political convictions never wavered during Roberts’ time at Harvard, one thing remained uncertain—his career path. One of Roberts’ most consequential choices at Harvard was the decision to go to law school rather than to pursue a Ph.D. in history.

From the beginning of freshman year, Roberts told his roommates he planned to study European intellectual history and then go on to be a history professor—although law, he said, was a possibility, too.