Seeking The 'Real' Roberts

s nominated to the United States Supreme Court last month, he exuded humility. "I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court," he said. As a young lawyer in the Reagan White House two decades ago, however, he was somewhat less reverent. Ridiculing a proposal to create a tribunal to lighten the high court's caseload, he wrote his boss, White House counsel Fred Fielding, that "while some of the tales of woe emanating from the Court are enough to bring tears to the eyes, it is true that only Supreme Court justices and schoolchildren are expected to and do take the entire summer off."

As interest groups gear up for Roberts's confirmation hearings next month, two sharply contrasting pictures of the man have emerged: balanced, judicious model of restraint--and young, caustic, true-believer conservative. The picture was further muddied last week when it was reported that Roberts, while working for a private law firm in the mid-'90s, helped a gay-rights group prepare for a 1996 Supreme Court case that established constitutional protection for gays. At first, "family values" conservatives were aghast. But they took some comfort in learning that part of Roberts's job was to play Devil's advocate in a mock Supreme Court argument--filling the shoes of the reliably right-wing Justice Antonin Scalia.

Figuring out the "real" John Roberts is what passes for summertime sport in Washington, and last week's game only underscored the futility. Even in the early 1980s as a young lawyer in the White House and the Reagan Justice Department, Roberts didn't fit a stereotype. Back then Roberts was a junior member of a team that believed it had been elected, in part, to roll back excessive government power, including in the courts. "Roberts was not a wise guy," recalled Ken Starr, his boss in the Attorney General's Office. "When I asked him to take on the court-stripping case [removing the power to order school busing and abortion rights from the federal courts], he didn't say, 'Oh, great, let's storm the barricades'," Starr recalled.

Over time, as Roberts worked in private practice arguing all sides, he shed some of his conservative certainties, say friends. He got married, adopted two kids and received the occasional hard knock. In the fall of 1992 he missed out on his deep ambition to become a federal court of appeals judge when his nomination stalled in the Democrat- controlled Senate. Though he put on a good public face and joked about taking up golf, privately he was crushed by the news, according to a government colleague who spoke with him directly but does not wish to be identified. Others described him as "philosophical."

While driven, he always "had things in perspective" and "knew how to moderate his lifestyle," according to David Leitch, a colleague in government and private practice. But in January 1993, while golfing, Roberts suffered a seizure. "It was stunning and out of the blue and inexplicable," says Larry Robbins, a Justice Department colleague. Roberts wasn't allowed to drive for several months after the seizure and took the bus to work. Doctors never figured out the problem, though stress can be a cause. A senior White House official described the malady as an "isolated, idiosyncratic seizure"--he hasn't had another since--and said that Roberts is in good health.

A decade later, Roberts got his D.C. appellate court seat, and the job may have knocked out any residual traces of cockiness in Roberts's judicial temperament. Judging is "much harder than I thought it was going to be," Roberts told a friend, Georgetown University law professor Richard Lazarus. "The questions are much harder and closer than I thought." They won't get easier on the Supreme Court.

Seeking The 'Real' Roberts | News