Portrait of the Chief Justice as a Family Man

Jane and John Roberts, with children Josie and Jack, before Roberts's confirmation hearing last fall.
Jane and John Roberts, with children Josie and Jack, before Roberts's confirmation hearing last fall. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Charles Lane
Monday, August 7, 2006

John Roberts sounds like a fun dad. Every Saturday morning, he makes bacon and waffles shaped like Mickey Mouse for his wife, Jane, and two children, Jack and Josie. If the kids don't act up during Sunday Mass, he lets them play soccer afterward without changing out of their church clothes. One Thanksgiving, he helped son Jack with a class assignment, dressing up a paper turkey as a pirate.

Apparently, not even the chief justice of the United States has the power to question the preschool curriculum, no matter how wacky the teacher's ideas.

These and other little-known facts of Roberts's home life appear in a new kid-friendly biography, "John G. Roberts, Jr.: Chief Justice," by Lisa Tucker McElroy. It has just gone on sale at the Supreme Court gift shop. Pitched at about a sixth-grade reading level, the 48-page hardcover book filled with family photos is part of a Lerner Publishing Group series that also includes the life stories of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D), Vice President Cheney, Mother Teresa and, of course, Green Day, the rockers known for their hits "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and "American Idiot."

The juxtaposition of Green Day and the chief justice raises a question: Does the band have to be out of bed by the end of September because it doesn't want to miss the first Monday in October?

In any case, "American Idiot" could not have been written with the Harvard-educated Roberts in mind. The biography traces his intellectual rise from the demanding La Lumiere School in Indiana, where he raced through the four-year high school curriculum in three years, spending his senior year on independent study, then went on to Cambridge and prestigious judicial clerkships, capping it all off with a legal career that included 39 arguments before the Supreme Court.

The emphasis throughout, though, is on the humanizing anecdote, such as the time 12-year-old Roberts ran his lawn mower over a hornet's nest and received a hundred stings. Kids would do well to learn from that experience, since some of them might have to cut a few extra lawns this summer to afford the $23.95 retail price of the biography.

Whatever its cost, the book is remarkably candid about events in Roberts's adult life that an earlier generation of public official might have kept strictly private.

For example, it contains a frank and touching account of the adoption of John and Jane Roberts's two children. "As is often the case, the adoption process turned out to be long and difficult," the book explains. "Even though the Roberts qualified early on to adopt a child, there were several disappointments. A few years passed. . . . Finally, in the summer of 2000, they received good news from their adoption agency. A birth mother had chosen them to adopt her baby." That was Josie. Then, to their surprise, a second adoption agency called to tell them Jack could be theirs. They adopted two children born just four months apart.

"Josie and Jack know that they are adopted, and they identify with other adopted children," the book notes. "They even read picture books about adoption."

The book is based on interviews with Roberts and his family from last November.

Roberts, by the way, is spending some of his first summer vacation as chief justice on youth outreach. On Saturday, C-SPAN aired an interview of Roberts by Brian Lamb that will form part of a "C-SPAN Classroom" project designed to get middle and high school students interested in the Constitution.

Roberts uses the interview to lament, in a limited way, the growth of his institution's role.

"Too many people think whenever there's any kind of dispute in our society, well let's take it to the Supreme Court and they'll decide," he said. "In a democratic republic that shouldn't be someone's first reaction. Their first reaction should be to resolve political disputes in the political process."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company