Dream believer

 

Profile/John Roberts: He is regarded as having one of the sharpest legal minds, but is viewed with suspicion by some minority groups and environmentalists, writes Seán O'Driscoll in New York

According to the legal groupies website, undertheirrobes.com, John Roberts jnr is the fifth sexiest federal judge in the US. He is also a fluent Latin speaker, a summa cum laude Harvard graduate, a champion wrestler, former captain of his school football team and a multimillionaire lawyer with a greeting-card cute family and a mansion in the suburbs.

John Roberts jnr also has incredibly good timing - aged 50, he is set to make history by becoming not only a Supreme Court judge, but also the court's chief justice, overstepping judges who have decades of experience on the bench.

For his supporters, it is just reward for an awesome legal mind. He is, according to his former wrestling coach, his Latin teacher, his work colleagues and many others interviewed by The Irish Times, a man of staggering intellect and ambition, who has plotted a path to the Supreme Court since his teenage years.

"A very, very driven individual," is how his former Latin teacher, Jim Coppens, describes someone who once cross-dressed as Peppermint Patty so he could make it into the school production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

For Coppens, Roberts's intellect is simply "astounding. He did a four-year Latin course in three years. By then, he was at least as good at Latin as me, if not better. I would give him impossible amounts of work and he would come back the next time looking for more."

Richard Garnett, a law school professor at the University of Notre Dame, describes Roberts as "the Tiger Woods of the Supreme Court", a man who put in extraordinary preparation before presenting 39 cases to the court as a government and private attorney.

But critics say Robert's wealth and ability have buffered him from the poor and disadvantaged. Civil rights groups point to a case last year, when Roberts upheld the arrest of a 12-year-old black girl for eating a single French fry on a subway.

Her name was Ansche Hedgepeth. After her arrest, her laces were taken off her shoes, and as Roberts said in court, she cried all the way to the police station, where she was released after three hours.

In his ruling, Roberts said that those responsible for arresting Hedgepeth had reaped the media attention befitting men who make 12-year-olds cry. Nevertheless, he said, Hedgepeth was not the victim of unreasonable arrest, a ruling that left civil rights groups aghast.

"He is Antonia Scalia in sheep's clothing," said Ralph Neas, of People for the American Way, comparing Roberts with the most right wing of the Supreme Court justices.

Neas's group released a 50-page paper opposing Roberts's nomination and is working on a larger report. Environmental groups also view Roberts with suspicion, not least because, during his two years as an appeal judge, he rejected the use of the constitution's interstate commerce clause to save a Californian toad from extinction.

Dissenting from the majority review, he noted that the property being taken in the case was a "hapless toad" that had decided to live in California "for reasons of his own" and had not crossed state lines. In an opinion that was widely condemned by conservation groups, he said a building company should be allowed to take top soil in the toad's habitat, rather than go to the expense of taking soil from another site.

For his supporters, however, Roberts refuses to adopt any legal philosophy and interprets each case according to the US constitution.

"He is one the brightest legal minds I have ever seen," said University of Pennsylvania legal professor Amy Wax, who worked with Roberts. "I just can't see how anyone can be a control freak and not be neurotic. Yet he is so laid-back, always concentrating on the legal issue and never on external circumstances."

The son of a steel company executive, Roberts was raised in the almost exclusively white town of Long Beach, Illinois, where anyone except "white gentiles" were banned from buying houses under extensive sale covenants still in place when he was growing up.

For those who knew him, he was an earnest yet unpretentious student. A footballer of limited ability, his leadership skills nevertheless won him the captaincy of the school team. In class, his achievements set the standard for a generation of students.

MICKY GALLAS, a Long Beach estate agent who was a year behind Roberts in school, remembers his aura of brilliance. "If we heard that John didn't understand something, we would laugh because we knew we were in for a real rough time. If he didn't know it, we weren't going to know it either."

After a stint at a private boarding school he was off to Harvard where his perfect scores earned a clerkship with New York appeal court judge Henry Friendly, who was trying to rein back the role of advocate judges. Roberts's second clerkship was with William Rehnquist, the conservative Supreme Court chief justice who died last week. Rehnquist recognised Roberts's huge intellect, once saying he was the best clerk he had seen. The two could often be seen walking for hours outside the Supreme Court, discussing minute legal points in tortuous detail.

Roberts later went on to work for the Reagan administration as a legal adviser, before making millions of dollars in a Washington DC legal firm. He married late, at age 41, to Jane Sullivan, an Irish-American and leading member of Feminists for Life, a pro-life group that hopes to wrestle the term "feminist" from pro-choice advocates. The couple, who adopted two children, have a part share in a cottage in Knocklong, Co Limerick, which they visit every second year. Shannen Coffin, a lawyer who worked with Roberts, said that the family were "small-c" Catholics who talked little about their religious beliefs.

Jane Roberts has stayed very quiet since president Bush announced her husband's nomination. One of her few official comments was to The Irish Times for this article, when she said that her children were adopted in the US, and not in Ireland, as Time magazine had claimed. While friends and family are also staying quiet, the huge deluge of legal papers released in the last month offer some clues to Roberts's personality. They show a strong conservative bent and a great personal love of president Reagan. In 1986, Roberts sent Reagan a note resigning his position in the counsel's office. "The inspiration you have given me will burn brightly in my heart long after I have left," it said.

ROBERTS HAS SAID that hundreds of legal memos released by the National Archive and the Reagan Library show only his arguments in defence of government positions and not his private views. Nevertheless, in one case that had only limited relevance to extending abortion rights, he argued that Roe v Wade, which established a woman's right to abortion services, was flawed and should be overturned.

His legal opinions also showed a dislike for certain types of affirmative action programmes to help minorities, referring to them as "racial quotas".

"I don't have an overarching, uniform philosophy," Roberts told the Senate in 2003, pointing out that he had argued in court both for and against many key social issues, including affirmative action and the environment. His legal papers testify to a dry, sarcastic wit and impatience with anyone he saw as lowering the tone of the Reagan presidency. While working as a government legal adviser, his office was plagued by requests from Michael Jackson for letters from president Reagan, which were to congratulate Jackson on various achievements. In one case, Roberts strongly argued that the president should not send Jackson a letter of congratulations for giving disadvantaged children free concert tickets.

"I hate sounding like one of Mr Jackson's records, constantly repeating the same refrain, but I recommend we not approve this letter," Roberts wrote. "Frankly I find the obsequious attitude of some members of the White House staff toward Mr Jackson's attendants, and the fawning posture they would have the president of the United States adopt, more than a little embarrassing."

ROBERTS ADDED THAT "a newcomer who goes by the name of Prince," was planning a concert in Washington. "Will he receive a presidential letter? How will we decide which performers do and which do not?" he asked.

In another incident, president Reagan wanted to send a letter to the Irish ambassador on mock letterhead that read "an Teach Bán", the Irish language translation of "the White House". Roberts wrote a memo saying that the idea was "a little cute for my tastes, but I have no legal objections".

Showing the type of legal caution that has now brought him to the threshold of the Supreme Court, he added that the meaning of "an Teach Bán" should be verified. "For all I know it means 'Free the IRA'," he added.

"He is a sharp, quick thinker and he doesn't like the trivial," said Prof Wax. "He is not exactly warm and fuzzy. But who needs that? In my opinion, warm is really overrated. John Roberts is on the brink of the greatness he has dreamed of all his life. You know he is not someone who's going to let his dream fall away."

The Roberts File

Who is he?

John Roberts, president Bush's nominee to the US Supreme Court, expected to be chief justice of the court

Why in the news?

Nomination hearings begin next week

Most appealing characteristic

A brain the size of a buffalo, the good looks of an Argos catalogue model

Least appealing characteristic

Busting 12-year-olds for eating French fries

Most likely to say

President Reagan lit a light in my heart

Least likely to say

Anything remotely controversial until Congress rubber-stamps his nomination