Roberts: Ready For His Close-Up

As interest groups and senators squabble over his old memos, Supreme Court nominee John Roberts has spent most of August sequestered in the Justice Department preparing for his September hearings. A small cadre of administration lawyers--several of whom are former Supreme Court clerks--have been quietly meeting to quiz Roberts on constitutional law. According to three sources familiar with the preparations (who would not be identified because of the confidential nature of the process), this week Roberts will formally start his "murder boards"--practice sessions before a team of outside legal and congressional experts playing the parts of Judiciary Committee senators. The mock hearings are taking place in extraordinary secrecy. White House officials won't disclose the names of outside participants or reveal particular lines of questioning. The questioners are mostly veterans of previous confirmation battles or experienced Supreme Court advocates, and even they have not been told much. The outside lawyers have been told to show up at the Justice Department and given little further instruction. Volunteers received a thick packet of briefing materials from DOJ. They have not been told who else will be on the murder boards. "I've been told to show up at a particular conference room at 9 a.m. and that's about it," says one participant who declined to be identified so as not to antagonize the White House.

While the mock hearings don't strive to replicate the setting and atmospherics of the real deal, the participants have been studying for their parts and will try to anticipate the senators' questions. Roberts is no novice when it comes to prep sessions. In 2003, he went through a similar process, albeit less grueling, before his confirmation hearing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where he currently sits. And Roberts has done dozens of moot courts to ready himself for oral arguments before the Supreme Court. Colleagues say he has particular methods he's likely to use this week. He'll ask "senators" to stay in role as long as possible. "He views this as an endurance test and a way of sharpening his mind," says David Leitch, a recently departed deputy White House counsel who will participate in the sessions. Leitch, who has a long history with Roberts from their shared days at both the Justice Department and in private practice, won't go easy on his friend. "Someone has to be willing to put him through his paces," Leitch says.

Since Roberts has argued an impressive 39 cases before the Supreme Court, his advisers believe his practice rounds do not need to be overly rehearsed. So far, Roberts hasn't held back on charm or humor. His team thinks there's no need for him to review the hearings of Clinton appointees Stephen Breyer or Ruth Bader Ginsberg, both of whom deftly deflected politically treacherous questions. Roberts already knows which questions not to answer: he played a senator in Sandra Day O'Connor's mock hearing more than 20 years ago.