Roberts Is Defined by His Calm

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Under pressure, some people talk a bit faster, some talk a bit louder, some get tongue-tied or sound irritated. Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s voice changes not one whit.

His genial tone comes through on tapes of his many oral arguments as a lawyer before the high court. Here, years of litigation and months of preparation come down to 30 minutes of mental jujitsu with a constantly interrupting panel of contentious justices. But Roberts greets every snappish interjection, every odd hypothetical question, every hostile digression with the same unhurried yet purposeful voice.

This unflappability will be tested again starting Sept. 6, when Roberts goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a multiday confirmation hearing. The session is sure to feature hostile questions from Democratic senators worried about the nominee's views on civil rights, abortion, judicial ethics and the role of courts. His testimony before the same committee two years ago, when he was appointed to the federal bench -- and his years as one of America's most effective appellate advocates -- suggests that Roberts will be ready for that test.

Roberts sailed through his earlier hearings, even as the tone of the questions got pretty hot. Here's Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), for example, scolding Roberts for dodging questions about judicial philosophy:

"You are making this an absurd process, sir, when you are saying that you can't answer even broad questions about specific jurisprudence, when you can't say how you feel about previous court cases."

The response was typical Roberts: cheerful, outwardly humble, yet giving up nothing. "I'm not sure that I could give an intelligent answer," the witness answered, "because I do think the philosophies of the justices are pretty hard to pin down. . . . To go back and analyze all of the cases and see, was this justice adopting this philosophy in this case, or this one that philosophy in another case -- I guess I just didn't feel capable of doing that."

Colleagues say the key to Roberts's poise under pressure is the immense preparation he gives to his cases. He once told David Frederick, a fellow lawyer, that he spends at least five weeks preparing for a 30-minute argument.

"The secret is developing a method for taking the hostile question that you didn't want to answer and transforming it into an affirmative point that advances your client's cause," Frederick explained in a recent interview. "Judge Roberts is one of the very best at that."

Then there's the voice -- an even, midwestern tenor vaguely reminiscent of the actor and film director Ron Howard. Neither stentorian nor insistent, it manages to be pleasant without being memorable, forceful without being strident. Roberts manages to sound as if he is agreeing even as he slips in a knife.

In recent weeks, Roberts has been practicing for his hearings with a team of advisers, trying to anticipate the questions he will face and best ways to answer them. But you might say he has been getting ready for much of his adult life. One of his first jobs as a Justice Department aide in the early 1980s was to help coach Sandra Day O'Connor -- whose seat he is now seeking to fill -- through her confirmation testimony. He advised O'Connor to keep her answers general and to avoid specifics.

This was his strategy two years ago. He presented himself to the Judiciary Committee as a sort of judicial Everyman, an unbiased arbiter who takes cases one by one with only the law and the relevant facts to guide him. Such a judge demurs when asked about issues in advance and declines to criticize the work of others. The senators wore their politics on their sleeves, but Roberts was bland as he answered -- or sidestepped -- their questions.

"My practice has not been ideological in any sense. My clients and their positions are liberal and conservative across the board," he said. "I have argued in favor of environmental restrictions and against takings claims. I've argued in favor of affirmative action. I've argued in favor of prisoners' rights under the Eighth Amendment. I've argued in favor of antitrust enforcement. At the same time, I've represented defendants charged with antitrust cases."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company