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.

But Bush and Ross knew better, and constantly joked with him that he was going to be “a big lawyer,” Bush says.

Bush says that he does not remember exactly when Roberts made his choice. “He talked about possibly pursuing a law career from freshman year, and somewhere it just seemed to have shifted from ‘possibly’ to ‘probably,” Bush says, adding that “even during his last undergraduate year he verbally entertained the possibility of studying history instead of law.”

According to Bush, in the end Roberts turned down a scholarship to Harvard’s Ph.D. program in favor of enrolling at the Harvard Law School (HLS), which he chose over Stanford because, as Bush recalls, his Stanford interviewer wore sandals and no tie.

But despite his strong academic drive, Roberts did have a fun and lighthearted side. “There are some people who are only focused on their studies,” Hirsch says, “and that was not him.”

Hirsch says Roberts was “sociable and friendly,” and a great person to converse with. Bush remembers that although they studied diligently and never partied, they always joked around in their room.

In particular, Bush spoke fondly of “fraise-bagel,” a game that Roberts developed that involved keeping a Nerf football from hitting the ground.

Roberts was also known to his roommates for keeping bottles of Pepto-Bismol constantly within reach.

LEGALLY BOUND

After leaving Leverett in June 1976, Roberts moved north of the Yard to HLS, where he quickly established himself as a star—his grades were impeccable, and he served as managing editor of The Harvard Law Review.

Scherer, who was in Roberts’ first year section, remembers that Roberts, who became a fast friend, thrived at HLS.

“He loved studying law and the rule of law,” says Scherer, “and he’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met.”

In particular, Scherer remembers being frightened when he studied for his first exams at law school with Roberts.

“He was so far ahead of me that I thought I could flunk out of Harvard Law School,” Scherer says. “Fortunately, I realized that he was not just way ahead of me but also way ahead of everyone else.”

But it was more than just intelligence that set Roberts apart, Scherer says.

“He was smarter than everyone else and worked harder. Combine that with his modesty and it made for an amazing package,” he says.

Colleagues of Roberts at the Harvard Law Review contacted by The Crimson all say that he was highly respected by everyone, particularly for being fair and not ideological—although he took a hard line on deadlines.

THIRTY YEARS, BUT MUCH THE SAME

Scherer and Hirsch have kept in touch with Roberts over the last three decades, and both say that, both personally and at the senate judiciary hearings, Roberts is largely the same person that he was at Harvard.

Hirsch says that, in particular, his focus and determination have not faded.

“I remember a few years ago and he said that he’d just gotten two decisions in cases he argued in front of the Supreme Court,” Hirsch recalls. “One he won 9-0 and the other he lost 5-4. I said, ‘if you add them up you won 13-5,’ but he was having none of it and was angry he did not win both.”

Hirsch says that, despite his success, Roberts still “comes across as a friendly and regular guy,” who likes to wisecrack and talk about sports. But Scherer says he has retained a social formality.

“Back in law school, people always said he was a formal guy,” he says. “There is still the formality—he’s a gentleman’s gentleman and traditional. But he’s more politically adept.” Scherer says this latter quality has become apparent in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this week.

Scherer also predicts that—if he is named to the Supreme Court— Roberts would show his sharp wit more frequently. “It has come out a bit in the hearings,” Scherer says, “but he’s just biding his time and biting his tongue right now.”

—Staff writer Adam M. Guren can be reached at guren@fas.harvard.edu