The John Roberts dossier

Everything you need to know about Bush's nominee, before the battle begins.


Katharine Mieszkowski
July 21, 2005 9:11AM (UTC)

Who is he?

John G. Roberts, 50, now serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where he's been since 2003. It took him three nominations and more than a decade to get there. He was originally nominated for the court in 1992 by the first President Bush, and again by George W. Bush in 2001; both nominations died in the Senate. Roberts was renominated in January 2003 by President Bush and joined the court in May of that year.

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His two-year stint on the D.C. court offers a short record of decisions to scrutinize. But in his career as a litigator, Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, both as a lawyer in private practice and as one working for the government under Republican administrations. He won 25 of them.

Roberts was a member of "Lawyers for Bush-Cheney" and contributed $1,000 to the first Bush-Cheney election campaign in 2000. His professional ties to the Bush family go back a generation; he served under Kenneth Starr as the principal deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration. He also campaigned for that administration's election, as a member of the executive committee of the DC Lawyers for Bush-Quayle '88. Before that, he was the deputy White House counsel for four years in the Reagan administration.

When not serving in Republican administrations -- or contributing money to them -- he's been in practice as a corporate lawyer at Hogan & Hartson, the largest law firm based in D.C., where he was paid more than $1 million in 2003, the last year he worked there. His clients ranged from the states of Hawaii and Alaska to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Pulte Corp. He successfully represented Toyota Motor Manufacturing in a case before the Supreme Court, where he argued that a worker with carpal tunnel syndrome was not protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, even though she was fired for an injury acquired on the job. He also served as a lobbyist on behalf of the Western Peanut Growers Association and the Panhandle Peanut Growers Association. A partner at Hogan & Hartson for 10 years, his net worth is more than $3.7 million, according to financial disclosure statements.

Roberts is also a member of the influential Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies,a group of conservatives and libertarians, which holds that the legal professional is currently dominated by "a form of orthodox liberal ideology."

If confirmed to the Supreme Court, Roberts will be the 105th white male justice to serve.

Where does he come from?

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Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1955, Roberts grew up in Indiana. He has an Ivy League résumé and the top-tier clerkships to go with it. He attended Harvard College, from which he graduated in three years, and then Harvard Law School, where he was on the Law Review, graduating in 1979. After school, he clerked for Henry Friendly at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, as well as Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court, before being appointed the special assistant to the attorney general in the Department of Justice.

A Catholic, he's married to a lawyer, Jane Marie Sullivan, with whom he has two children, Jack and Josephine.

Where does he stand on abortion?

Roberts has been involved in two key decisions while arguing on behalf of Republican administrations, both of which pro-choice groups consider attacks on women's reproductive rights.

In Rust v. Sullivan, the then-deputy solicitor general coauthored a brief in support of regulations prohibiting U.S. family planning programs, which get federal aid, from giving any abortion-related counseling. In that brief, he wrote: "We continue to believe that Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled ... The Court's conclusion in Roe that there is a fundamental right to an abortion ... finds no support in the text, structure, or history of the Constitution." The court upheld those regulations. In another case, involving the Operation Rescue, he coauthored the government's amicus brief supporting the group's right to target clinics, under the First Amendment, arguing that Operation Rescue was not engaged in a conspiracy to deny women equal protection.

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But in his confirmation hearing in 2003 to the appeals court, when asked about abortion, Roberts said that the Supreme Court was clear on the matter, and he could uphold it: "Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land," he said. "There's nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent." Whether as a member of the court he would try to change that law remains to be seen.

What do "enemy combatants" and French fries have in common? (Roberts' track record on civil liberties.)

Last Friday, the court on which Roberts now serves decided a case that supports the Bush administration's plans to use secretive military tribunals in the war on terror, which have provoked an international outcry from civil libertarians and human rights advocates. The three-judge panel, including Roberts, ruled unanimously that tribunals set up to try terrorism suspects for war crimes, in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, were authorized under federal law. And it found that any rights accorded by the Geneva Convention to prisoners of war did not apply to suspected al-Qaida members or so-called enemy combatants. The two lawyers representing Hamdan in the case called the decision "contrary to 200 years of constitutional law." It was the first major opinion in which Roberts concurred -- and, ironically, could be tested in the Supreme Court during its next term.

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Another, much-noted accomplishment also has to do with civil liberties. In 2004, Roberts upheld the arrest of a 12-year-old girl who was handcuffed by transit police on the Washington Metro system for eating a single French fry. "No one is very happy about the events that led to this litigation," he wrote. Yet, he determined that the cops didn't violate the girl's rights under the Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches.

What about the environment?

Robert's doesn't seem to be a big fan of the Endangered Species Act, at least considering his attitude toward the arroyo toad -- about which he wrote "for reasons of its own lives its entire life in California," rather snippily in a dissent in the case of Rancho Viejo v. Norton. In 2003, Roberts wanted the court to reconsider a panel's decision that upheld a Fish and Wildlife Service regulation protecting the toads under the act. The court declined to hear the case, but in his dissent Roberts maintained there could be no interstate commerce rationale for protecting the toad.

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When Roberts was the government's lead counsel before the Supreme Court in Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, he successfully argued that members of the environmental group did not have a right to file claims against 4,500 acres of public land being opened to mining. The court agreed, making it harder for plaintiffs to challenge government actions that hurt the environment.

Where does he stand on gay rights?

Gay rights advocates like the Human Rights Campaign say that Roberts has no paper trail on the issue as a judge. But they fear that his conservative Republican record, including his criticism of the right to privacy authorized by Roe, bodes badly for them.

What about prayer in school?

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Roberts has argued on behalf of his clients for the expansion of religion in public schools. In a coauthored brief to the Supreme Court in Lee v. Weisman, he argued that religious ceremonies should be allowed to be a part of graduation ceremonies. The Supreme Court rejected that position. But Roberts successfully argued to the court that religious groups should not be banned from meeting on school grounds in the case of Mergens v. Westside Community School District.


Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

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