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Few Have Felt Beat of Roberts's Political Heart

By Michael Grunwald and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 24, 2005

E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. fondly recalls working with John G. Roberts Jr. at Hogan & Hartson, the blue-chip Washington law firm where Prettyman was a renowned Supreme Court advocate, and Roberts was quickly becoming one. The two lawyers ate lunch together almost every day, and Prettyman says they became close friends, even though he's a staunch liberal and Roberts is a staunch conservative.

At least he thinks Roberts is a staunch conservative.

He's always assumed Roberts is a staunch conservative.

Actually, now that he racks his brain, he's not so sure.

"You know, I must have had a thousand lunches with John, and I can't think of a single thing he's said that would specify his politics," says Prettyman, a World War II veteran who once served as an aide to Robert F. Kennedy. "We were all under the impression that he's a conservative, but he always talked generalities. He's not the type to lay it all out."

Now that President Bush has nominated Roberts to serve on the court, many Americans are under the impression he's a staunch conservative. He's got a conservative résumé and a conservative lifestyle; he was chosen by a conservative president. But his public record and personal history suggest that his conservatism may not resemble the conservatism of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, Bush's favorite justices.

Roberts is certainly conservative in some senses of the word. He's a strait-laced, buttoned-down midwesterner, a creature of the legal establishment, respectful of tradition and deferential to authority. He's a devout Roman Catholic and a loyal Republican who clerked for then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, worked for then-Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr and served in the Reagan White House. He's a grammar snob; he once critiqued a Justice Department memo that sounded like "an awkward translation from Bulgarian."

But Roberts has always held his politics close to his vest. He said last week that his core values as a justice would be "modesty" and "stability." If his first 50 years on Earth were a prelude to an ideological crusade, he's done an excellent job of disguising it.

The Prodigy

John Glover Roberts Jr. was born in Buffalo, but as a boy he moved to Long Beach, Ind., an all-white, predominantly Catholic, largely Republican town on Lake Michigan. His father, John Sr., was an electrical engineer at Bethlehem Steel's new mill in the area, and later an assistant general manager at the plant; his mother, Rosemary, was a homemaker. John and his three sisters all attended Notre Dame Catholic School, where he wore a uniform of navy pants, a white shirt and a navy tie. Every Sunday, the tight-knit family went to Mass.

"They were very sincere about their beliefs, and they practiced them," said Joan Langley, Notre Dame's church secretary. "They were absolutely toe the line and obey the rules."

By the time John was a teenager, the Roberts family had moved into a four-bedroom Tudor-style home and joined the Long Beach Country Club, where John and his parents spent many happy hours on the golf course. John had also blossomed into an intellectual prodigy. "He did not boast of his brilliance," says his eighth-grade math teacher, Dorothea Liddell. "He was just brilliant, and everyone accepted that."

In December 1968, John applied to La Lumiere, a rigorous all-boys Catholic prep school in the area, and his earnest letter to the school suggests his early drive. "I've always wanted to stay ahead of the crowd, and I feel that the competition at La Lumiere will force me to work as hard as I can," he wrote in neat cursive. "I won't be content to get a good job by getting a good education, I want to get the best job by getting the best education."

In fact, Roberts dominated the competition at La Lumiere, earning the best grades in his class every semester. His calculus teacher announced after one test that a few students had received D's and the rest had failed -- except for one boy who had blown the curve by getting every answer right. "We all knew, if there was one 100 percent: Guess who?" one classmate recalls. Assigned to prepare a 15-minute oral report for theology class, Roberts plowed through seven books, then lectured his fellow students for three consecutive days of class.

"If the bell hadn't rung, he could still be speaking now, 32 years later," jokes his teacher, David Kirkby.

John may have seemed like the kind of youth who gets beaten up by the football players, but he was the co-captain of the team, playing running back and linebacker. He was short, slender and slow, but he made up for it in enthusiasm, and he had a gift for seeing the whole field. John was also a wrestler, a student politician, co-editor of the school newspaper, a member of the drama club, and a "sacristan" who helped the school's priest prepare for Mass.

La Lumiere was a $7,000-a-year haven of formality in the Indiana woods, far from the Vietnam War and student protests. Students wore blazers, gray flannel trousers and ties during the day, then changed into suits for dinner. John thrived in this structured environment; his hair, classmates recall, was always cropped a bit closer than theirs. As Kirkby put it, "he wasn't trying to test the limits."

"He is conservative now, and he was conservative then," said Larry Sullivan, his former math teacher.

But if he was conservative in the studious, religious, clean-cut sense, it was not clear he was politically conservative. There was not much ideological debate at La Lumiere; students spent more time arguing what would be on their next test. Teachers sometimes had them discuss issues such as abortion or the 1972 Nixon-McGovern election, but they were assigned one side of the argument, so Roberts learned to analyze issues from every angle.

It was a cloistered childhood, but John did get a brush with the outside world during the summer, cleaning up hazardous materials and emptying grease wells in his father's mill. When he introduced Roberts, Bush implied that the job reflected working-class roots, but it was really a perk for the sons of Bethlehem executives, paying an enviable $12 to $16 an hour. And there was never any real possibility that Roberts would follow his father into the factory for good. He was heading to Harvard.

Joining the Establishment

Roberts arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1973, during the last throes of the Vietnam protests on campus. But Roberts was there to study, not to rally. He majored in history and graduated summa cum laude in only three years; his thesis on British liberalism in the early 20th century won the prize for the best in his class. He spent the next three years at Harvard Law School, becoming the managing editor of the Law Review, more than holding his own among high-powered classmates who included future luminaries such as Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson and Broadway lyricist David Zippel.

Roberts was known as a brilliant, diligent, intellectually curious student without the stereotypical Harvardian need to remind everyone how smart he was. He was humble and self-deprecating, with a dry wit often masked by his midwestern reserve. He seemed genuinely nice. "The thing that strikes you most about him is the disconnect between how cocky he could be and what a phenomenally unassuming man he is," says Norman C. Ankers, now the head of litigation at a Detroit law firm.

Most of his classmates were liberal, and some sensed that he was more conservative. But most of those impressions were based more on his central-casting demeanor than anything he said. He attended church, played squash and dressed neatly; his college roommate told the Harvard Crimson he had ruled out Stanford Law School because his interviewer wore sandals. But he didn't flaunt any GOP loyalties. "I knew nothing of his politics," says another Law Review editor, Robert M. Pozin, now a partner in a Washington law firm. "I can remember political discussions we had at the Law Review . . . but I don't remember John being involved."

Larry Robbins spent hundreds of hours with Roberts at the Law Review, but he says that at the time, he didn't even know whether Roberts was a Republican. But he did get to see how Roberts revered the law. He says that Roberts thought the way the obsessive Professor Kingsfield wanted his students to think in "The Paper Chase," the film about the rigors of Harvard Law School. "John was extremely careful and deliberate," says Robbins, now the lead partner of a Washington firm. "He studied every word, because he believed that words had consequences. If he had a political agenda, it escaped my radar."

A few of his classmates started a Rehnquist Club, honoring the justice who was then considered the most conservative voice on the Supreme Court. Roberts did not join.

The Republican Elite

Roberts's first job after graduation was a clerkship for Judge Henry J. Friendly, an Eisenhower appointee who was one of the most respected appellate judges of his era. Friendly was an influential voice for judicial restraint, criticizing the Warren Court for pushing rights that were not included in the Constitution. Roberts admired his deliberate approach to the law, and his reluctance to second-guess the political process. The next year, Roberts won a clerkship with Rehnquist, whom he called "the Boss." But Richard J. Lazarus, his roommate in a Capitol Hill apartment, says Judge Friendly was a more important mentor to Roberts.

"Friendly was a conservative Republican, but that didn't determine his jurisprudence," says Lazarus, a liberal Democrat who is now a Georgetown University law professor. "John had deep respect for his intellect and approach to the law."

Lazarus says Roberts was never a fire-breathing, in-your-face, red-meat Republican. But by now, he was clearly a Republican; the night of the Carter-Reagan showdown in 1980, Lazarus put a donkey on their television, and Roberts countered with an elephant. After the election, he went to work in the new administration under Attorney General William French Smith, although his direct boss was a rising Republican lawyer named Kenneth Starr.

Starr liked to play devil's advocate, and he often asked Roberts to present alternatives to approaches favored by the Justice Department bureaucracy. It was Starr who first assigned Roberts to make the case that Congress should be allowed to stop federal courts from mandating busing.

Toward the end of 1982, Roberts joined the White House counsel's office, his most partisan job by far. He drafted precise and occasionally witty legal memos, warning of the potential political damage from a housing bill, arguing that the Small Business Administration should not be permitted to disagree publicly with the administration, and at one point attacking Office of Management and Budget director David A. Stockman as "disloyal" for trying to undermine a bill with press leaks. "OMB's position calls to mind what has been said of the Roman legions: They lost many battles but they never lost a war, because they never let a war end until they had won it," Roberts wrote.

Roberts was part of a young GOP vanguard in the Reagan administration, and he was a loyal team player. But he was more of a lawyer than a political operative, even if his client was the president. He pored over documents for minute errors; he once corrected a speech proclaiming discrimination illegal "from Maine to California," because it was illegal in Alaska and Hawaii, too. He advised the White House not to help a well-connected New York computer firm with a loan, and rejected a request by the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican to let an embattled archbishop see his FBI files. He was politically savvy, but Michael A. Carvin, a Washington litigator who was at the Justice Department at the time, says Roberts was much less outspoken about his politics than his peers. He was an aggressive advocate for the administration's policies, but it was never entirely clear which ones he personally supported.

"It's not a calculated pose that he keeps his cards close to his vest; that's just the way he is," Carvin says. "I'm an obnoxious New Yorker; I spout off. He's a reserved midwesterner."

Representing His Clients

Roberts entered private practice in 1986, as an associate and then a partner at Hogan & Hartson, but Starr lured him back to government in 1989 to be deputy solicitor general, arguing the George H.W. Bush administration's cases in federal court. It was a political job, but he did not approach it in an overly political way, analyzing cases from every angle. "We had a general sense of him being comfortable with the administration's priorities," says Michael Astrue, an administration lawyer who worked with Roberts on several cases. But he was not like "a lot of very political lawyers, who wear their politics on their sleeves."

John F. Manning, who worked in the solicitor general's office and is now a Harvard Law School professor, says that if Roberts had one consistent value, it was deference to political branches. He remembers Roberts quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, describing the review of congressional laws as "the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called upon to perform."

"He had that quotation at his fingertips," Manning says. "I think that's a strong value for him. He doesn't think the Supreme Court should promiscuously overrule political decisions."

But that could be true of liberal decisions, as well as conservative decisions. Under Starr, Roberts developed a reputation as a lawyer's lawyer, a process guy, an incrementalist who liked fact-based arguments better than grand theories. Mit Spears, a Roberts colleague in the Reagan administration, says Roberts believes judges should be "dispassionate arbiters of balls and strikes," as opposed to "bomb-throwers."

"People who think the Supreme Court should lead the way in society are in for a bitter disappointment," Spears said.

As an administration lawyer, Roberts's advocacy for his clients did not necessarily reflect his personal beliefs. For example, his friends argue that just because Roberts signed a brief describing Roe v. Wade as "wrongly decided" does not mean he agrees. But it doesn't mean he doesn't, either. Roberts did not become an administration lawyer by accident. He has never stated his views publicly, but his friends assume he's antiabortion. And while he has never said how he would rule on Roe as a Supreme Court justice, he once suggested while discussing a euthanasia case that he is sympathetic to letting states decide matters of "terminating life."

President George H.W. Bush nominated Roberts for a federal judgeship, but the Democratic Senate did not vote on his nomination before the Clinton administration took office. So Roberts returned to Hogan & Hartson and became one of the nation's top appellate lawyers. In 1996, he married Jane Sullivan, a rainmaking corporate lawyer. They have adopted two children.

For the most part, Roberts has avoided politics. He has given $3,735 to Republican candidates -- including Bush, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and ex-senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) -- but that's not much on a salary that topped $1 million a year. He gave advice to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) during the Florida recount in 2000, but he did not sign briefs.

"I don't really feel like I know his politics," says H. Christopher Bartolomucci, a Hogan & Hartson partner who has worked closely with Roberts. "My sense is he's conservative, but he never talked about it. He's certainly conservative in the sense of respect for the text, caution, adherence to the precedent, deference to the government as opposed to social engineering."

Roberts has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, representing clients as diverse as Chrysler Corp., welfare recipients, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Mining Association. He once argued for Hawaii's right to maintain racial preferences for native islanders, a risky move for a Republican judicial hopeful. He rarely proposed innovative legal theories, and he never seemed to use his cases to try to advance a conservative agenda. He just argued the facts and the law. He won more often than not.

In 2003, after President Bush nominated Roberts for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, he explained his overriding philosophy of the law: no overriding philosophy. He promised to take each case as it came, always putting the law ahead of his personal beliefs.

Some liberals worry that Roberts is a kind of Trojan horse -- a conservative activist who has diligently maintained a cover as an affable, conscientious, nonideological proponent of judicial restraint. But the liberals who know him best do not worry so much about that. "I guess I think of him as conservative, but I'm not even sure why," says Henrietta Wright, a former Carter administration lawyer who is close friends with the Roberts family. "He's just a genuine guy. You can't fake that for years and years."

On the other hand, it is not entirely clear why so many conservative activists believe Bush has nominated one of their own. His associations with Rehnquist, Reagan, Starr and Bush have certainly played a role. And a soft-spoken establishment conservative has a better chance of confirmation than a flame-thrower.

Roberts certainly looks the part of a conservative. He had a priest over to his home for Christmas Eve. He has made wry comments about the progressive legal theories that are rampant on law school campuses. He belongs to a country club. He plays squash.

"You know, he's an ambidextrous squash player," says Larry Robbins, his friend from the Law Review. "He favors his right, but he can use his left when the situation calls for it."

"But don't make too much of that, okay?"

Staff writers Jo Becker, Jonathan Finer, R. Jeffrey Smith and David Von Drehle contributed to this report.

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