John G. Roberts Jr. ’76 was sworn in as the seventeenth chief justice of the United States today after a 78-to-22 Senate confirmation vote, making him the first graduate of Harvard College or Harvard Law School (HLS) to lead the Supreme Court.
Roberts, 50, is the youngest person to serve as chief justice since John Marshall took office in 1801. Since Roberts will probably lead the Court for decades to come, he is in a unique position to influence the nation’s legal course.
After taking the oath of office, Roberts said he plans to work with his colleagues to “pass on to my children’s generation a charter of self-government as strong and as vibrant as the one that Chief Justice [William H.] Rehnquist passed on to us.”
Roberts also quoted nineteenth-century Secretary of State Daniel Webster, about whom he wrote a prize-winning essay as an undergraduate at Harvard.
“What Daniel Webster termed ‘the miracle of our Constitution’ is not something that happens in every generation, but every generation in its turn must accept the responsibility of supporting and defending the Constitution and bearing true faith and allegiance to it,” Roberts said.
All 55 Republican senators voted to confirm Roberts, as did 22 Democrats and the Senate’s one Independent member. The remaining 22 senators, all Democrats, voted against his confirmation.
Roberts was sworn in by Associate Justice John Paul Stevens at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House this afternoon. He will also take part in an investiture ceremony on Monday morning, at the Supreme Court, before taking his place at the center of the bench for the first time.
Roberts’ confirmation ends an arduous process that began when President Bush nominated him for a seat on the Court in late July. Earlier this month, Roberts faced four days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which sent his nomination to the Senate floor by a 13-5 vote last week.
In the days leading up to today’s vote, most experts had agreed that Roberts would face an easy confirmation.
CAMBRIDGE TO THE CAPITAL
Today’s swearing-in ceremony caps Roberts’ meteoric rise to the top of the legal world, one that began at Harvard nearly 30 years ago when he chose to attend law school instead of pursuing a Ph.D. in history.
Roberts graduated from Harvard College in three years, earning a summa cum laude degree in history. He went on to HLS, where he served as the managing editor of the Harvard Law Review and eventually graduated magna cum laude.
After his six years in Cambridge, Roberts went on to clerk for Judge Henry Friendly. Later, he clerked for then-Associate Justice Rehnquist.
Roberts subsequently served as a lawyer in the Reagan administration, as deputy solicitor general under President George H. W. Bush, and then as a private-practice attorney specializing in appellate arguments.
During the past two years, he served as a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Those who knew Roberts during his time at Harvard said they are not surprised that he attained such a high office.
“Becoming Chief Justice of the United States would be vindication of his powerful work ethic, exceptional abilities, and competitive drive,” Robert N. Bush ’77, who roomed with Roberts for three years in Straus Hall and Leverett House, wrote in an e-mail earlier this month.
Steven F. Hirsch ’77, another college friend of Roberts, said earlier this month, “If there is somebody who is very well qualified to be chief justice, it’s him.”
Roberts’ confirmation turns a Court dominated by Harvard alums an even deeper shade of Crimson. Six of the Court’s nine justices have ties to Harvard. David H. Souter ’61 graduated from the College, while Justices Souter, Stephen G. Breyer, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy hold Harvard Law degrees. Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended HLS for two years before transferring to Columbia.
The late Chief Justice Rehnquist also held an M.A. in government from the University. Of the 109 justices in Supreme Court history, 18 have attended HLS, with 14 of these graduating.
AND BACK AGAIN?
According to David M. Kaden ’06, president of the Institute of Politics’ student advisory committee, it is more than likely that the newly confirmed chief justice will be invited back to Cambridge as a speaker.
“We will certainly issue him an offer to come to Harvard,” he said.
Director of Communications at HLS Michael A. Armini said that he did not know of any plans to invite Roberts to campus, but added that he is “sure it will happen.”
“We had Justices Scalia and Breyer here [on Wednesday],” Armini said, “and we’re always eager to have any one of our alumni justices back, either as part of their reunions or to add to the overall educational experience.”
Still, an official at the Office of the University Marshal said that he did not know of any plans to invite Roberts back to Cambridge to speak at a future Commencement.
Donald S. Scherer, a friend from law school who has remained in touch with Roberts, told The Crimson earlier this month that Roberts still has a soft spot for his alma mater.
“He really, really loved being at Harvard,” Scherer said. “He was and is romantic about all things Harvard.”
—Staff writer Adam M. Guren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at email@example.com.