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Roberts, John

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Significance: When he replaced William H. Rehnquist as chief justice, Roberts was expected be a conservative force but more moderate and conciliatory that his predecessor.


The son of a steel executive, John Glover Roberts, Jr., was born in Buffalo, New York. When he was at a young age, his family moved to the affluent town of Long Beach, Indiana. He and his three sisters grew up in a devoutly Roman Catholic, upper middle-class family. He attended a Roman Catholic boarding school in LaPorte, Indiana, where he graduated first in his class in 1973. In addition to his studies, he was captain of the football team, coeditor of the school newspaper, and enthusiastic participant in wrestling, choir, and drama. Roberts was an outstanding undergraduate student at Harvard University, where he won a competitive award for an essay on Marxism and Bolshevism. During the summers he worked in a steel mill. Afer graduating summa cum laude in 1973, he studied at Harvard Law School, where he was managing editor of the law review. Again, he graduated summa cum laude in 1979. After his graduation, he worked one year as a law clerk at the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. During 1980 and 1981, he served as law clerk for Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist. From 1981 to 1986, he worked for the Reagan administration, first as special assistant to the U.S. attorney general and then as associate counsel to the president. After working at the private law, Hogan & Hartson, he spent the next four years as principal deputy solicitor general. He argued thirty-nine cases before the Supreme Court and prevailed in twenty-five of them. From 1993 to 2003, he returned to Hogan & Hartson, in which he became a partner; in 1995, he reported an income of $1,044,399. In May, 2001, President George W. Bush nominated him to the Circuit Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., and the Senate finally gave its approval on June 2, 2003. During his two years on the District of Columbia Circuit, Roberts authored forty-nine opinions, including three dissents. In his analysis of these opinions, law professor Cass Sunstein observed that Roberts was a “judicial minimalist” who emphasized precedent and generally wrote narrow case-based decisions while avoiding doctrinaire pronouncements. In the case of Hedgepeth v. Washington Metro Authority, Roberts wrote that an “unwise or even assinine” law does not necessarily violate the Constitution.


Appointment to the Supreme Court

On July 19, 2005, shortly after Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement, President Bush nominated Roberts to the Supreme Court to fill her seat. However, with the sudden death of Chief Justice Rehnquist in September, Bush quickly chose Roberts to become chief justice. During the Senate confirmation hearings, Roberts convinced most observers that although he was a conservative, his views were more moderate than those of his predecessor. He declared that he did not have an agenda, defended broad congressional powers under the commerce clause, and generally defended a perspective of judicial self-restraint. In answering a question, he observed that the Constitution contained no “bad idea clause.” Acknowledging that Roe v. Wade “is the settled law of the land,” he said that his personal views would not prevent him from “fully and faithfully applying that precedent.” The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Roberts's nomination by a 13-5 vote. On September 29, the full Senate gave its consent by a 78-22 margin. At the age of fifty, Roberts became the youngest chief justice since John Marshall. While presiding over the Supreme Court on October 3--the first day of the 2005-2006 session--Roberts wore a plain black robe without the gold sleeve-bars of the former chief justice. During the course of his first session, he made a favorable impression on most observers. He was consistently prepared and extremely polite, and he avoided polemics. Although many decisions under Roberts were settled by 5-4 margins, as was true of the Rehnquist Court, Roberts's conciliatory tone appeared to promote more of a spirit of collegiality. During his first year on the Court, there was not much evidence that he was having much influence on the convictions of the other justices, and he voted with the minority about as often as he was on the side of the majority. Roberts appeared to take a broad view of the prerogatives of government, especially in the area of criminal justice. For example, while the Court was examining the case dealing with Oregon's doctor-assisted suicide law, Gonzales v. Oregon, Roberts was one of three dissenters who believed that the federal government had statutory authority to prosecute physicians who prescribed lethal doses. In Garcetti v. Ceballos he joined a 5-4 majority to rule that whistle blowers did not enjoy any special protection from the First Amendment. In Hudson v. Michigan (2006), he joined a five-member majority to allow use of criminal evidence obtained in violation of the knock-and-announce rule. Roberts usually voted with the more conservative wing of the Court, although not as consistently as Justice Samuel Alito. Whenever the court divided into 5-4 votes, Roberts almost invariably voted with the conservatives (with Anthony M. Kennedy being the swing vote). During his first session, Roberts was on the same side as conservative justice Clarence Thomas in 82 percent of the decisions, whereas he only agreed with liberal justice John Paul Stevens in 35 percent of the cases.



Further Reading

  • Dworkin, Ronald. “Judge Roberts on Trial,” New York Review of Books 52 (October 20, 2005): 14-17.
  • “John Robert's Biography,” Supreme Court Debates 8 (November, 2005): 197-224.
  • Neubauer, David. Battle Supreme: The Confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts and the Future of the Supreme Court. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005.
  • O’Connor, Sandra Day. “The New Face of America's High Court,” Time, May 8, 2006, 64.
  • Taylor, William L. “The Nominee,” New York Review of Books, October 6, 2005, 30-35.
  • Thomas, Evan, and Stuart Taylor, Jr. “John Roberts,” Newsweek, August 1, 2005, 23-34.