A First for Nation and Chief Justice

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

John G. Roberts Jr. had a reputation as one of the most persuasive lawyers ever to argue before the Supreme Court. But in 2005, he was not able to convince a senator from Illinois that he should be confirmed as chief justice.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind Judge Roberts is qualified to sit on the highest court in the land," Barack Obama told his fellow senators the day after their meeting. "The problem I had is that when I examined Judge Roberts's record and history of public service, it is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak."

Roberts, of course, prevailed. And today, in his role at Obama's inauguration, he will become the first chief justice to administer the oath to a man who voted against his confirmation.

As the two meet on the steps of the Capitol, each with a hand on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used to take his first oath of office, it will be the continuation of an intriguing relationship that is bound to deepen.

Both men had stellar careers at Harvard Law School -- Roberts ('79) was managing editor of the law review, while Obama ('91) was president of the review. Each has come to his ambition early: Roberts, who will turn 54 next week, the second-youngest chief justice; Obama, 47, the fourth-youngest to be elected president.

But one took a conservative path and the other a liberal road, and now the two careers will become intertwined. The appointments of Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- Obama voted against him, as well -- have made the court a more consistently conservative place, one that Obama criticized during the campaign but now at times will need to persuade.

At the same time, Obama's election ensured that any new justices appointed during at least the next four years will be more like the liberal ones with whom Roberts has been at odds since his appointment.

It is not law that the chief justice swears in the new president, but tradition. In this case, it is also the kind of gesture -- the show of goodwill among those who disagree -- that both men appreciate.

Roberts made the effort early on, inviting Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to visit the court.

Both the chief justice and the president-elect were all smiles last week during that visit, Obama signing a guest book under a portrait of a man who links them: William Howard Taft, the only person to serve as president and on the Supreme Court.

Roberts assured Obama that he would receive a "warm welcome" at the court, and said the visit would allow "colleagues in public service" to become better acquainted.

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