So what is there still to be learned about Judge John Roberts, President Bush's choice for the Supreme Court?

We know that he is intellectually well-qualified to contribute to the work of the court. He has been a standout in every classroom, from grade school in Indiana through Harvard Law School. He has clerked for two distinguished jurists, argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court and won high praise from fellow lawyers when he was nominated two years ago for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often regarded as the second most important court in the land.

We also know that he is very likely to be confirmed. He was cleared for his current post by voice vote, after only three of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Democrats opposed sending his name to the floor. Sandra Day O'Connor, the justice he would replace, called him a "fabulous" choice. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the senator in whose office the "Gang of 14" moderates negotiated their agreement to avoid a showdown over judicial filibusters, said there's no way that Roberts's record would justify any of the 14 declaring this an "extraordinary circumstance" warranting a filibuster.

Barring some surprise, Roberts is headed for confirmation by a lopsided margin. That speaks well of the president, who bypassed more controversial conservatives and who also denied himself, at least for now, the political benefit of naming the first Hispanic justice or the third woman to the court.

Having argued earlier that Bush was probably eager for a smackdown with Senate Democrats, let me say that I am delighted to have been wrong.

So what can the Judiciary Committee hearings tell us about Judge Roberts? Much that is important about his view of the law and the courts in American society.

Despite his youthful summer jobs in the steel mills at Burns Harbor, Ind., where his dad was an executive, Roberts has led a sheltered life, absorbed in the law. Private Catholic schools, Harvard, appointed jobs in the White House and Justice Department, a million-dollar-a-year corporate practice, married to a fellow lawyer -- all commendable but insulated.

At his earlier confirmation hearing, he rejected any doctrinaire approach to the law. When it comes to interpreting the Constitution, he said, "I don't have an overarching, uniform philosophy." But you can search his record in vain for examples of his sensitivity to the impact of the law on people's lives. He clearly reveres the institutions of this democracy -- the federal system, the separation of powers, the Supreme Court itself -- and that is a vitally important recommendation. But it is less clear how he views the role of the courts in securing justice for the citizens of the republic. That is something the senators can usefully probe. The human dimension is something Justice O'Connor provided, as the only member of the court who had served in elective office, as majority leader of the Arizona Senate. That human dimension -- the political judgment -- is something the court needs. As Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said before Bush announced his choice, "It would be useful . . . to have somebody" to replace O'Connor "who's been out in the world and has a more varied background" than that of a career lawyer or jurist.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) publicly cautioned the president not to name "a knee-jerk conservative crusader who will march in lockstep to the tune of partisan pressure groups." Roberts is much better than that.

But it would be comforting to know that Roberts has been "out in the world" enough to know there's more to life than law books.

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Paul Duke, the veteran Washington journalist who died last week of leukemia, was a model of decency and professional civility for a whole generation of fellow reporters in the capital. When he came up from Richmond to work for the Associated Press, he brought with him some of the good manners and easygoing humor of his native region. But those of us who competed with him when he was covering politics and Congress for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News quickly learned to admire his tenacity in going after a story.

When he became the host of PBS's Friday evening roundtable, "Washington Week in Review," in 1974, Paul used the opportunity to reward his kind of journalism -- offering space at the table not to the shouters who populate so many talk shows but to the careful students and analysts of public affairs who are less driven by their egos than by a need to understand the meaning of the events they're covering. In doing that for 20 years until his retirement, he magnified his own example into an invaluable journalistic legacy.

davidbroder@washpost.com