The Making of a Judge
Midwestern Scholar With a Steady Conservative Bent
Sunday, September 4, 2005
Asked to trace the intellectual development of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, his college roommate, Bob Bush, suggests starting early.
"If you are looking for influences, the vast majority of them clearly were in play before he got to college," said Bush, who roomed with Roberts for three years at Harvard University.
With a love of tradition honed at a boys prep school and a deep Catholicism instilled by his parents, John Glover Roberts Jr. arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1973 uncannily self-assured even for a Harvard freshman, his interests, tastes and worldview already formed.
Although he found himself in a much more liberal environment than the steel-making swath of Indiana where he had been raised, the seven years Roberts would spend at Harvard as an undergraduate and a law student ended up reinforcing his conservative views rather than undermining them. Friends say he seemed to feel singularly comfortable sitting outside the campus's political mainstream, engaging in the sport of political debate but rarely altering his views.
As a senior, he explored the thought of Daniel Webster, a prominent 19th-century conservative out of step with his time. As a second-year law student, he startled his tax class by wondering aloud whether the government should switch to a flat tax.
"There is no doubt he was more conservative than the professors and most of the students," said Donald Scherer, a friend who ate lunch with Roberts most days as first-year law students. "I'm not aware of any epiphany. He just seemed pretty consistent."
An examination of the formative years of the federal appeals court judge nominated by President Bush to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the nation's highest court provides an important context for two fundamental questions the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider when it is scheduled to begin confirmation hearings on Tuesday:
Do Roberts's recently released writings from years as a legal adviser to two Republican presidents -- containing strong stances on such volatile issues as abortion, affirmative action, gender equity, and the role of religion in public life -- reflect his own views or only those of the officials who hired him? And is Roberts flexible enough in his thinking to decide the issues that come before the court in an open-minded way?
A Father's Influence
In a memoir about her coming of age called "Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner," M.J. Andersen, an editorial writer at the Providence Journal, describes how her former boyfriend, a law student named Grover, could be explained in part by his father. The father was, she wrote, a man who "had risen from modest origins . . . and now was in charge of things, the guy who got relocated to solve steel-company problems. It was not hard to see, in Grover, the drive that has been passed on."
Andersen, who dated Roberts while he was in law school and a Supreme Court clerk, will not discuss their relationship. But her book, in which she identifies Roberts by close approximation of his middle name, Glover, presents a vivid picture of a father who by many accounts had a strong influence on his son, including his choice of careers. "Real men study law," the strong-minded father told Roberts when he was considering graduate school in history, one friend recalled.
Jack Roberts grew up in Pennsylvania coal country in a family of Republican churchgoers, according to a cousin, George DiBacco. In 1964, he was dispatched by Bethlehem Steel to join a small group of executives selected to build an enormous new mill on an expanse of empty sand on Lake Michigan's shore. Along with his wife, Rosemary, he moved his family to a pretty community along the lake.
Although it is part of Michigan City, a small industrial town, Long Beach "was kind of an ingrown community . . . always more conservative, kind of the lace-curtain Irish," said Bernie Lootens, who taught history at the city's public high schools for three decades. When Roberts's parents bought their split-level house there in 1966, the property still was covered by a legal covenant specifying that residents had to be "Caucasian Gentiles," according to a longtime realtor, a local title company and county records.