Biography of John G. Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

John Glover Roberts, Jr. (born January 27, 1955) is the 17th chief justice of the United States, serving on and presiding over the United States Supreme Court. Roberts began his tenure on the court on September 29, 2005, after having been nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate following the death of former Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Based on his voting record and written decisions, Roberts is believed to have a conservative judicial philosophy.

Fast Facts: John G. Roberts

  • Known For: 17th chief justice of the United States Supreme Court
  • Born: January 27, 1955 in Buffalo, New York
  • Parents: John Glover Roberts and Rosemary Podrask
  • Education: Harvard University (B.A., J.D.)
  • Wife: Jane Sullivan (m. 1996)
  • Children: Josephine Roberts, Jack Roberts
  • Notable Quotation: “You can't fight for your rights if you don't know what they are.”

Early Life

John Glover Roberts, Jr., was born on January 27, 1955, in Buffalo, New York, to John Glover Roberts and Rosemary Podrasky. In 1973, Roberts graduated at the top of his high school class from La Lumiere School, a Catholic boarding school in LaPorte, Indiana. While a student, Roberts wrestled, served as captain of the football team, and was a member of the student council.

After graduating from high school, Roberts attended Harvard University, earning his tuition by working in a steel mill during the summer. After receiving his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1976, Roberts entered Harvard Law School and graduated magna cum laude in 1979.

Legal Experience

From 1980 to 1981, Roberts served as a law clerk to then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist on the United States Supreme Court. From 1981 to 1982, he served in the Reagan administration as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith. From 1982 to 1986, Roberts served as associate counsel to President Ronald Reagan.

After a brief stint in private practice, Roberts returned to government to serve in the George H. W. Bush administration as deputy solicitor general from 1989 to 1992. He returned to private practice in 1992.

D.C. Circuit

Roberts was nominated to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—also known as the D.C. Circuit—in 2001. Tensions between the Bush administration and the Democrat-controlled Senate, however, prevented Roberts from being confirmed until 2003. As a Circuit Court judge, Roberts ruled on a number of major cases, including Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which concerned the legality of military tribunals. The court decided that such tribunals are legal because they are sanctioned by the United States Congress and because the Third Geneva Convention—which outlines protections for prisoners of war—does not apply to U.S. courts.

Appointment to U.S. Supreme Court

On July 19, 2005, President George W. Bush nominated Roberts to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by the retirement of Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Roberts was the first Supreme Court nominee since Stephen Breyer in 1994. Bush announced Roberts' nomination in a live, nationwide television broadcast from the East Room of the White House.

Following the September 3, 2005, death of William H. Rehnquist, Bush withdrew Roberts' nomination as O'Connor's successor, and on September 6, sent the United States Senate notice of Roberts' new nomination to the position of chief justice.

Roberts was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 78-22 on September 29, 2005, and was sworn in hours later by Associate Justice John Paul Stevens.

During his confirmation hearings, Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his philosophy of jurisprudence was not “comprehensive” and that he did “not think beginning with an all-encompassing approach to constitutional interpretation is the best way to faithfully construe the document.” Roberts compared the job of a judge to that of a baseball umpire. “It's my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat,” he said.

Roberts is the youngest chief justice of the Supreme Court since John Marshall served more than 200 years ago. He received more Senate votes supporting his nomination (78) than any other nominee for chief justice in American history.

Major Decisions

During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Roberts has handed down rulings on a number of major issues, from campaign finance to healthcare to free speech. Roberts concurred with the majority in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, one of the court's most controversial rulings. The decision asserted that the First Amendment protects the rights of businesses, non-profit organizations, and other groups to make unlimited expenditures, including those intended to influence political campaigns and elections. Critics of the ruling believed it has allowed for an influx of corporate money into elections, weakening the democratic process. Proponents, on the other hand, believe that such money is a form of protected speech.

In the 2007 case Morse v. Frederick, Roberts authored the majority opinion, which held that educators have a right to regulate student speech expressed at or near school-sponsored events. The litigation concerned a student who held a banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" across the street from a school event. Roberts, invoking the "school speech" doctrine, wrote that the school principal had reason to restrict this speech because it was promoting illegal behavior. In a dissenting opinion, Justices Steven, Souter, and Ginsberg wrote that "the Court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding...a school's decision to punish Frederick for expressing a view with which it disagreed."

Personal Life

Roberts is married to Jane Marie Sullivan, also an attorney. They have two adopted children, Josephine ("Josie") and Jack Roberts. The Robertses are Roman Catholic and currently live in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Legacy

Roberts has played a significant role in Supreme Court history, often serving as a key swing vote on divided rulings. In 2012, he sided with the liberal side of the court in voting to uphold key provisions in the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) as part of the decision National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. He sided with the conservative minority, however, in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

Sources