John G. Roberts: conservative but little known
A top gun of the Republican Party, John G. Roberts, 50, is widely known and widely admired by conservative Washington insiders. But the depth of his political conviction is a lingering question for those on both the left and the right. Appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in May 2003, Roberts has spent only a short time on the bench, leaving little to mine on the lightning-rod issues sure to galvanize the nomination process.
"Those who know him say he is extremely conservative, but he doesn't have much of a track record," says American University law Prof. Herman Schwartz, author of Right Wing Justice: The Conservative Campaign to Take Over the Courts. "He doesn't make speeches. He doesn't write articles." There is little question, however, that Roberts has the connections and credentials. The powerful D.C. Circuit Court has already produced Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Born in Buffalo, Roberts earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard before launching a career marked by high-ranking government service and a lucrative run in private practice. After clerking for then Associate Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist from 1981 to 1982, Roberts served as an aide to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith and White House Counsel Fred Fielding during the Reagan administration. In 1986, he joined the prestigious Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson, where he was a Supreme Court litigator. One colleague described him as "the best appellate lawyer of his generation." But Roberts continued to jump back into government, first temporarily as the U.S. principal deputy solicitor general from 1989 to 1993 and then, 10 years later, to take the D.C. Circuit Court seat. Roberts took a hefty pay cut to become a judge: from more than $1 million a year to $171,800. "It demonstrates a commitment to public service that's admirable," says attorney Carter G. Phillips, who's known Roberts since the 1980s. "He's the perfect kind of judge from a lawyer's perspective, someone with an open mind who takes their arguments seriously."
While some conservatives worry he's the next David Souter, whose brief time on the First Circuit masked moderate-to-liberal leanings that emerged after his confirmation, liberals have long argued that Roberts is too extreme. Roberts was first nominated for the D.C. Circuit Court in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, but Democrats, who controlled the Senate, blocked his nomination because of concerns over his record as a deputy solicitor general. In 1990, Roberts raised eyebrows when he attached a footnote to a brief in a case about abortion financing stating that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Roberts also cowrote a brief arguing that an antiabortion group's attempts to blockade abortion clinics did not amount to a violation of equal protection. He is affiliated with the conservative Federalist Society and supports restrictions on environmental protections.
As a judge, Roberts pushed the D.C. Circuit Court to review a decision that protected Arroyo toads in California from commercial development under the Endangered Species Act. He also joined in the unanimous decision to uphold the arrest of a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry on a D.C. Metro train. But Roberts is far from predictable. In United States v. Mellen, he disagreed with another Republican appointee, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, to rule in favor of a criminal defendant challenging his sentence in a fraud case. "He's going to be solidly conservative, but I never thought of him as ideological," Phillips says. "He's very talented. Very insightful. He's one of those people I was happy to see go to the bench. I didn't have to compete against him anymore."