A Profile of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

John Roberts is the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a George W. Bush appointee. He controversially cast the deciding vote upholding Obamacare.

Conservative Credentials:

Just after passing the bar exam, a young John Glover Roberts went to work clerking for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquest, a position any aspiring Chief Justice likely would covet. Roberts then went to work for US Attorney General William French during the Reagan administration. Both as an attorney, and as a judge on the US Circuit Court or US Supreme Court, Roberts has reflected his conservative, traditional principles in his rulings. Roberts doesn't make many speeches or write many articles. He prefers to speak through his court opinions.

Early Life:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. was born in Buffalo, NY on Jan. 27, 1955 to John G. "Jack," Sr. and Rosemary Podrasky Roberts. His father was an electrical engineer and executive for Bethlehem Steel in Johnstown, Pa. Roberts was brought up by his parents as a Roman Catholic. His penetrating intellect manifested itself as early as elementary school. In the fourth grade, he and his family moved to Long Beach, Ind., where he attended private schools. Despite his intelligence, he was a natural leader and was named captain of his high school football team even though he wasn't its most athletic member.

Formative Years:

Roberts originally intended to be a history professor, and chose Harvard over Amherst during his senior year in high school. Perhaps because of his Catholic upbringing, Roberts was identified early by liberal classmates and teachers as a conservative, although outwardly he expressed no particularly profound interest in politics. After graduating Harvard College in 1976, he entered Harvard Law School and was well known for not only his intelligence, but his even-temperament, as well. As in high school and college, he was identified as a conservative, but was not politically active.

Early Career:

After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard and Harvard Law School, Roberts first position was as clerk for Second Circuit Appeals Court Judge Henry Friendly in New York. Friendly was well-known for his disdain for the liberal activism of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. Next, Roberts worked for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who at the time was an associate justice. Legal analysts believe this is where Roberts honed his conservative approach to law, including his skepticism of federal power over the states and his support of executive-branch power in foreign and military affairs.

Work With the White House Counsel Under Reagan:

Roberts worked briefly for the White House counsel under President Ronald Reagan, where he established himself as a political pragmatist by tackling some of the administration's toughest issues. On the issue of busing, he opposed conservative legal scholar Theodore B. Olson, the assistant attorney general at the time, who argued that Congress could not prohibit the practice. Through memos, Roberts matched legal wits with Congress members and retired Supreme Court justices alike on issues ranging from the separation of powers to housing discrimination and tax law.

Justice Department:

Before his stint as an associate White House counsel, Roberts worked at the Justice Department under Attorney General William French Smith. In 1986, after his stint as associate counsel, he took a position in the private sector. He returned to the Justice Department in 1989, however, serving as principal deputy solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush. During his confirmation hearings, Roberts drew fire for filing a brief to allow a clergyman to deliver an address to a junior high school graduation, thus blurring the separation of church and state. The Supreme Court voted against the request, 5-4.

Path to Judicial Appointment:

Roberts returned to private practice at the end of Bush's first term in 1992. He represented a large range of clients including international automakers, the NCAA and the National Mining Company to name just a few. In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Roberts to serve as judge of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats held up his nomination until losing control of Congress in 2003. On the bench, Roberts participated in more than 300 rulings and wrote majority opinions for the court in 40 of those cases.

Circuit Court:

Although he issued and joined many controversial decisions, Roberts' most notorious case in the DC court of appeals was Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which Osama bin Laden's alleged chauffeur and bodyguard challenged his status as an enemy combatant who could be tried by a military commission. Roberts joined a decision reversing a lower court ruling and sided with the Bush administration, saying that such military commissions are legal under a congressional resolution of Sept. 18, 2001, which authorized the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against al Queda and its backers.

Supreme Court Nomination & Confirmation:

In July 2005, President Bush announced Roberts as his pick to fill the vacancy being created by retiring Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. However, after the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist, Bush withdrew Roberts' nomination on Sept. 6 and re-nominated him to be chief justice. His nomination was confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 29 by a vote of 78-22. Most of the questions Roberts fielded during his confirmation hearings were about his Catholic faith. Roberts stated unequivocally that "my faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role in my judging."

Personal Life:

Roberts married his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, in 1996, when they were both in their 40s. After several failed attempts at having children of their own, they adopted two children, Josephine and John.
Mrs. Roberts is a lawyer with a private practice firm, and shares her husband's Catholic faith. Friends of the couple say they are "deeply religious ... but don't wear it on their sleeves at all."
The Robertses attend church in Bethesda, Md. and frequently visit the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., where Jane Roberts is a graduate former trustee (along with Justice Clarence Thomas).

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Hawkins, Marcus. "A Profile of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-supreme-court-chief-justice-john-roberts-3303415. Hawkins, Marcus. (2021, February 16). A Profile of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-supreme-court-chief-justice-john-roberts-3303415 Hawkins, Marcus. "A Profile of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-supreme-court-chief-justice-john-roberts-3303415 (accessed March 20, 2023).