WASHINGTON - Several times over the past month, Judge John G. Roberts has taken his seat at a table in a government building, faced a phalanx of hard-nosed questioners determined to trip him up on key matters of law or judicial philosophy, and sweated through some of the toughest quizzing of his career.
And that's all before Roberts, President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, gets to his Senate confirmation hearings, which begin Tuesday.
Roberts has been practicing by submitting to a time-honored tradition for Supreme Court nominees: elaborate dress rehearsals - affectionately called "murder boards" - that try to anticipate the grilling he will face before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.
White House aides, lawyers from government and the private sector, and constitutional scholars play the roles of Democratic senators ready to rip into Roberts' opinions and writings or get him to betray his stances on key cases or precedents that might come before the Supreme Court.
Roberts, the Harvard-educated appeals court judge who has impressed people across the political spectrum with his poise under pressure and mastery of constitutional law, plays himself, giving a performance for which he has spent his professional life preparing.
Murder boards are intense moot court sessions in which nominees face probing questions, and sometimes-abusive treatment, from allies impersonating skeptical senators. The exercise, like any moot court proceeding, is designed to help its target anticipate weaknesses and plug holes in his arguments before facing an unfriendly panel for questioning.
The sessions were shrouded in secrecy as they unfolded in rooms in the Justice Department and the White House's Old Executive Office Building over the past few weeks. Administration officials would not discuss details of Roberts' preparations, but some familiar with the murder boards described them as a key component of the Bush team's campaign to get Roberts confirmed.
Supreme Court nominees forgo murder boards at their peril. In 1987, Judge Robert H. Bork's disastrous performance at his hearings was later attributed in part to his refusal to submit to them. Many nominees depend on the rehearsals in the same way that presidential candidates rely on debate prep.
"The animating idea is `practice makes perfect,' and to make him as comfortable as possible" at the hearings, said H. Christopher Bartolomucci, a former colleague of Roberts' who participated in one of the sessions. "There's not much point in having him practice by answering softballs, so we asked him some pretty hard questions."
A tough-love atmosphere permeated the exchanges, which were designed to come as close as possible to the tense, highly charged environment likely to greet Roberts as he sits in the Senate's Hart Office Building this week, fielding questions in a televised hearing.
Murder boards often feature detailed role playing, with participants taking on the characters of specific senators.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Judiciary Democrat, teased Roberts last week about the proceedings, asking him "who was playing my role and what were they asking - to save me time to have to prepare my own questions," Leahy told reporters.
Roberts "didn't take the bait at all," Leahy quipped.
Participants in one session acted the parts of Democratic senators, said Bartolomucci, a former associate counsel to Bush, but didn't impersonate anyone in particular. Still, they stayed "in character" throughout the session - except during a discussion at the end of the meeting - and "there was an effort to make it replicate what the hearing would be like."
"They've been designed as a form of endurance training," said Bradford A. Berenson, another former associate counsel to Bush who is familiar with Roberts' murder boards. "These [will be] long, tiring days for Judge Roberts, and so the moot sessions have to be long and tiring."
To prepare Roberts for overbearing and possibly insulting treatment at the hands of senators, participants had to treat him harshly in the closed-door practice sessions.
Attorneys from the counsel's office and the Department of Justice have been involved in drilling Roberts in advance of the hearings, under the watchful gaze of the two strategists Bush chose to shepherd him through the nomination process: former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Edward W. Gillespie, a former national Republican Party chairman.
At the same time, senators have been preparing for their part in Roberts' confirmation hearings, mostly by poring over stacks of his writings.
Leahy is "not doing war boards," said David Carle, his spokesman. Instead, he spent much of last month on his Middlesex, Vt., farm, and occasionally in Washington, reading through Roberts' records. About a dozen of his aides have scanned every available document concerning Roberts and drafted memos summarizing their contents.