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Roberts once a high-court clerk to Rehnquist

A year spent as clerk to Justice William Rehnquist, whose brand of conservatism steered the Supreme Court to the right since his elevation to chief justice, is one of many influences in John Roberts’ life and legal career.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two men — one middle-aged, the other in his twenties — barely drew any notice as they strolled the streets around the Supreme Court, deep in discussion about the law.

One was William Rehnquist, a justice on the nation’s highest court. The other was his clerk, John Roberts.

Rehnquist, as was his practice in earlier days, preferred walking and talking to understand the details of a case, simply stepping out the front door of the court for an extended saunter and thoughtful conversation with one of his three clerks.

Rehnquist’s death Saturday eliminated the chance that the bond between justice and aide would be renewed a quarter-century later. But Roberts now has the historic opportunity to follow in his old mentor’s footsteps — President Bush nominated him Monday to become chief justice, succeeding Rehnquist.

“If you’re a 27, 28-year-old lawyer, the idea of walking Capitol Hill for 30 minutes with a justice of the Supreme Court and discussing and arguing about cases, that’s as cool as it gets,” said Dean Colson, a Roberts colleague now a lawyer in private practice.

The year as clerk to Rehnquist, whose brand of conservatism steered the court to the right during his tenure as to chief justice, is one of many influences in Roberts’ life and legal career.

The Supreme Court nominee has clerked for a pre-eminent appellate judge, Henry Friendly; held sought-after political jobs in the Reagan and first Bush administrations and spent more than a decade at Hogan & Hartson, a well-established law firm appropriately located a few blocks from the White House. For the last two years, Roberts has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a common stepping stone to the nation’s high court.

Roberts personifies the Washington establishment, fittingly Republican and clearly conservative. In his writings, Roberts has described abortion as a tragedy, assailed activist judges, scoffed at the notion of a fundamental right to be free of discrimination and expressed support for school prayer.

A multimillionaire, Roberts, 50, is married to a lawyer, Jane Sullivan Roberts, owns a white brick colonial in the wealthy suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., and has two adopted children, ages 4 and 5.

Typical of presidential nominees, Roberts has granted no interviews since Bush announced his choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on July 19. The lasting image from his numerous meet-and-greet sessions with senators has simply been a broad smile.

Intelligence, a sharp wit and irreverence emerge from his copious writings as a White House and Justice Department counsel, as does evidence that Roberts is a stickler for correct spelling and grammar.

In a 1984 memo on President Reagan’s remarks on the environment, Roberts took exception to the following sentence on acid rain: “Once we have the answers we need we will follow it up with a major acid rain program,” arguing, “That’s somewhat like the old frontier saying that the defendant would be hung after a jury trial.”

He has shown the bravado of his intellect, writing an entire memo in French. He used the Latin phrase mutatis mutandis — “with all due adjustments or modifications having been made” — in a one-paragraph memo about the style of invitations for the counsel’s office Christmas party.

In an April 19, 1983, missive on creating an additional federal court to help relieve the high court’s workload, he observed that “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 are expected to and do take the entire summer off.”

Roberts has criticized conservatives and Congress, sometimes bluntly. He said a conservative backer of Reagan could “go soak his head” after complaining about the administration. He said what Congress does best is “nothing.”

Robert Knauss, who shared a cramped, 20-by-15-foot office for Rehnquist’s clerks with Roberts and Colson from July 1980-August 1981, sees several similarities between the chief justice and Bush’s nominee.

“They’re both really smart. They’re both great writers. Both have a knack for a turn of the phrase. Both are history buffs and incredibly well-read ... Both are very funny,” said Knauss, who also noted a common Midwestern demeanor.

Roberts, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., grew up in Indiana. Rehnquist hails from Wisconsin.

A busy youth
In the 1960s, John Roberts Sr., an electrical engineer and later a Bethlehem Steel executive, moved his wife, three daughters and one son to Michigan City, Ind. His namesake quickly established himself as an academic star among some 125 students at La Lumiere.

Roberts completed four years of Latin in three and was Jim Coppens’ only Latin student senior year, reading Virgil’s Aeneid, earning a top score on the advanced placement exam and college credit. Roberts went on to graduate a year early from Harvard.

Class rank was posted on the dining hall bulletin board at La Lumiere.

“It was big news in school when he got less than a perfect score. At graduation, I think he walked off with 11 of the 15 academic awards,” said Coppens, the former Latin teacher now executive director of the South Bend Civic Theater.

Roberts’ yearbook is a testament to a busy life — football co-captain, wrestling, newspaper co-editor, yearbook, choral, drama, student council, dorm proctor and academic committee.

He played Henry, the old Man, in “The Fantasticks” and Peppermint Patty in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” sizable school productions in which boys sometimes had to play girls.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Roberts aspired to be a history professor and won awards for essays on Marxism and on the “Utopian conservative” Daniel Webster. In law school, he was managing editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated first in an eclectic class.

Among his fellow graduates were Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.; history professor Edward J. Larson, a Pulitzer prize winner for a 1997 book on the Scopes trial; and Broadway lyricist David Zippel, who wrote “You Can Count on Me,” from City of Angels.

Harvard Law’s presence on the court stands at four justices who earned their degree there; Roberts would make it five.

An 'elegant' performer in court
Reminiscent of the 1986 movie “Legal Eagles,” in which attorney Debra Winger often spent time in the courtroom closely watching star prosecutor Robert Redford to pick up tips, several assistants in the Solicitor General’s office said they frequently sat in the crowd when Roberts appeared before the Supreme Court.

Diligent in his preparation, Roberts was articulate and quick on his feet in arguing 39 cases before the high court, about half while working for the government and half while in private practice.

“The whole performance was just so elegant,” said Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “I was impressed that his arguments were simple, clear, succinct and to the point.”

His delivery, Wax said, was “pleasant, dispassionate and calm. I never saw him betray anxiety, agitation or dismay, and he was always respectful of opponents.”

Roberts apparently impressed the justices, including Rehnquist. He won 25 cases.