Modest, measured, a Washington oddity

Initial Reviews

July 21, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Former colleagues and old friends and law school buddies can't recall John G. Roberts Jr. ever espousing a particular political ideology, but that's not why they consider the Supreme Court nominee to be such an oddity among Washington's important and powerful.

More striking, they say, is how he never seems to be in a hurry. Or the humble, self-deprecating manner that tends to make his acquaintances feel smarter and more imaginative than he - even though they almost assuredly are not.

Initial reviews of Roberts are in, coming from friends and others who have seen him in action at different stages in his career. And while criticism may emerge, as he comes under the microscope of media, political and interest group scrutiny, acquaintances offer mostly praise.

He was one of the top appellate lawyers in Washington, attends church with his family on Sundays and talks football with friends. His reasoning and intellect often make an impression on the lawyers around him, yet his quiet friendliness and lack of arrogance allow him to disappear in a crowded room.

`A regular Midwest guy'

Roberts has built a career in law with an eye toward higher goals - perhaps even to a seat on the Supreme Court. But behind the Ivy League credentials, beneath the dark wool uniform of one of Washington's oldest and largest law firms, Roberts is a man who more resembles his Midwestern roots than his East Coast resume, acquaintances say.

"He's clearly not an elitist prep school, Ivy League-educated blue blood," said Bob MacLaverty, a classmate who was in Roberts' wedding. "He's just a regular Midwest guy."

Added Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor who worked alongside Roberts in the Reagan and Bush administrations of the 1980s: "John may well know it all, but he's not likely to tell you unless you ask, and he'll do it in a way that puts you at ease. You wouldn't think a person like that would be so successful in Washington.

"I suppose he must have some ruthless friends looking out for him."

Or maybe not. As Washington's political engine warms up for the hard grind that the Roberts nomination is expected to become, a glaring absence among the spectators is anyone calling himself an enemy of the nominee.

Even Emily's List, a Democratic political action group that railed against Roberts' appointment and said it "puts Roe v. Wade in serious jeopardy," noted that the nominee "is well-known and well-liked around Washington on both sides of the aisle."

Roberts' modest ledger of political contributions over the past 15 years adds little fodder, showing a $1,000 donation to George Bush's 2000 campaign and $2,735 to candidates in Indiana and Illinois, all of them Republicans, according to a report by the Center for Responsive Politics. He also gave $7,450 to the political action group run by his former law firm, which has spread $2.3 million throughout Washington, 56 percent to Democrats.

His wife, Jane, also a lawyer, served on the board of Feminists for Life from 1995 to 1999 and has done free legal work for the organization. Roberts has said that he has no association with the anti-abortion group.

Recipe for success

Accomplishment untarnished by resentment or controversy is the recipe that Roberts seems to have employed for much of his life, friends say, be it as captain of his high school football team, as a top student at Harvard University, or as a rising star in the Justice Department or at Hogan & Hartson LLP.

William P. LaPiana was in law school at Harvard in the mid-1970s when he met Roberts, then an undergraduate considering a career in law. LaPiana served as a type of official mentor - not that Roberts needed any mentoring, LaPiana says - and might not have remembered the future jurist if not for his disarming personality.

LaPiana recalls Roberts entering his office after receiving a particularly good grade in an intellectual history course and joking that he'd have to squeeze his head through the door. It was a subtle jab at himself that showed he did not take success too seriously, LaPiana said, even as the future Law Review managing editor and magna cum laude graduate attained considerably more than most.

"One hesitates to reach any conclusions about someone's character, but I remember him mostly because of that favorable impression," said LaPiana, now a professor at New York Law School. "And everything I've heard people say about him on the news the last 24 hours is consistent with that impression he left 30 years ago."

Roberts was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to Indiana after second grade and attended Catholic schools there. He worked summers at the Bethlehem Steel mills in Burns Harbor, where his father, John G. Roberts Sr., was an electrical engineer.

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