Judge John G. Roberts Jr. was long regarded as the best Supreme Court lawyer in the nation by the very man whose shoes President Bush has chosen him to fill.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Saturday, played a key role in shaping Judge Roberts by making him a pupil during the early 1980s and propelling his career as a lawyer and federal judge in subsequent years.
Ted Cruz, who clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist during the mid-1990s, recalled that he and fellow clerks once asked their boss whom he considered to be the most superior Supreme Court litigator.
“He chuckled a little and said with a smile that he thought he could probably get the majority of his colleagues to agree that John Roberts was the best Supreme Court lawyer in the country,” said Mr. Cruz, now solicitor general of Texas.
Chief Justice Rehnquist’s fondness for Judge Roberts dated back years earlier when he had hired him as a clerk in 1980. Judge Roberts had been recommended by federal appeals Judge Henry Friendly, another esteemed conservative for whom Judge Roberts had clerked in 1979.
In the office of Associate Justice Rehnquist, the young Harvard Law School graduate evidently shined brighter than others.
When the clerkship ended in 1981, Justice Rehnquist phoned Kenneth W. Starr, then chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith, to recommend Judge Roberts for a Justice Department job.
“It’s not every day you get [such] calls,” said Mr. Starr, who won fame as a conservative lawyer during the 1990s investigating the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals and is now dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Law.
When Mr. Bush nominated Judge Roberts to replace outgoing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, some suggested that it might have been more poetic had Judge Roberts been nominated to replace Chief Justice Rehnquist, because it was under the chief justice’s wing that his career in Washington blossomed.
After clerking for Justice Rehnquist and working under Mr. Smith, Judge Roberts was associate counsel to President Reagan from 1982 until 1986, when he entered private practice. He served as deputy solicitor general under President George Bush from 1989 to 1993, winning 25 of 39 Supreme Court cases he argued on the government’s behalf.
The elder Mr. Bush later nominated him to be a federal judge, but that nomination was withdrawn before confirmation after Mr. Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
Judge Roberts went back to private practice until President George W. Bush nominated him to be a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge in 2001. That nomination and 29 others were blocked in the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was confirmed after Mr. Bush renominated him in 2003.