Some 30 years ago I was a pre-law adviser at Leverett House in Harvard College when John Roberts was an undergraduate. I hasten to add that I do not remember ever giving him any advice about going to law school. The occasion of his nomination to the Supreme Court is my excuse not for personal reminiscence but rather for some thoughts about the American legal profession at the beginning of the 21st century and about the possible future of the Supreme Court.
John Roberts is a child of the baby boom, both in age and in biography. He has come within reach of filling one of the most important roles in American life by combining a willingness to work, a good deal of ability, no doubt some good fortune and what surely were outstanding scores on standardized tests.
To society at large, Roberts is an example of what perhaps most Americans identify as our meritocratic society. His is not a story of "rags to riches," of course, but one of outstanding performance at an elite educational institution and a rise from the middle class to the top of one of the two professions -- law and medicine -- that dominate the ambitions of our generation.
In some ways the Roberts nomination is a confirmation of the way many Americans want to believe our society functions: dispensing rewards in direct proportion to ability and effort. To most lawyers, Roberts has exhibited the highest level of professional ability. His career path, in retrospect at least, leads directly to where he finds himself today.
It may be difficult for non-lawyers to appreciate what being managing editor of the Harvard Law Review means to legal professionals. Combine that office, symbolic of the highest accomplishment as a student, with clerking for the late Henry Friendly, widely acknowledged as one of the great judges of the 20th century (and an outstanding student at Harvard Law School and protege of Felix Frankfurter) and for then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist, and the result is a resume truly second to none.
But, even more significant, he is what I'd call "Langdell's dream" -- the sort of lawyer Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell hoped to educate when he and the president of Harvard, Charles Eliot, transformed Harvard Law School in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Langdell and Eliot took a school that was not demanding academically -- where study consisted to a great degree of memorizing and reciting back to the instructor the contents of legal treatises -- and worked to transform it into an academically demanding institution where students studied cases, the raw material of law. They aimed to create counselors, lawyers whose thorough knowledge of how legal doctrine was shaped through cases would help the appellate judges before whom they argued shape the law intelligently. That was exactly Roberts's job before he joined the circuit court, both in the Justice Department and in private practice.
It's not a job that very many American lawyers do. Those other law jobs -- defending and prosecuting people accused of crime, working in the regulatory branches of government, facilitating business transactions, giving tax advice in all sorts of contexts, dealing with the formation and dissolution of families and advising on planning for their financial security, litigating to enforce the rights and duties of all citizens -- all require extensive knowledge and the utmost in professional skill, and all are of great importance to American society.
Working at the highest levels of the appellate system of law makes for a strong nominee. Criticism of those who practice at this level can be made to seem suspect, since surely it cannot be based on doubts about their ability. But having every member of the Supreme Court arrive at the bench after walking that same path does have this problem: It risks the creation of a high court -- one whose members enjoy lifetime tenure -- with too narrow an experience of the life of the law in American society.
Whatever the fate of John Roberts's nomination, many members of the court are old enough to be his parent. There will be more vacancies sooner rather than later. We have barely begun to think deeply about how they should be filled.
The writer is a professor at New York Law School.