- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

President Reagan’s intrepid young counsel Fred F. Fielding was well on his way to assembling an all-star cast of lawyers to work in the White House in 1982.

A year into the job, he decided to phone over to the Justice Department, where a bright young man named John G. Roberts Jr. had been hired after a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist.

As the phone rang, Mr. Fielding, who had a penchant for being coy, knew just what to say.

“Raiding party,” he announced, as the phone was picked up by Kenneth W. Starr, another young conservative lawyer, who as chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith was Mr. Roberts’ immediate boss.

“I’m not sure he laughed at the time,” said Mr. Fielding, who proceeded to “pull rank” on Mr. Starr by revealing his intention to steal John Roberts for a spot on the team of young lawyers being built within the Reagan White House.

Mr. Starr said, “I would say I laughed nervously,” knowing immediately what Mr. Fielding was up to — and not surprised by his choice.

“This guy was just so good in his work,” said Mr. Starr, who had hired Judge Roberts about a year earlier after Justice Rehnquist had called to personally recommend the young lawyer.

It was a time of paramount importance in the life of President Bush’s nominee to replace outgoing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The position put him physically inside the Reagan White House, the first of three jobs within the inner circles of Republican presidents, and under the tutelage of Mr. Fielding who was helping shape the legal parameters at the dawn of a new era of American conservatism.

“I really wanted them to think outside of the box. I wanted them to know that their memos and their discussions reflect not only legal issues but also practical realities of the situation,” said Mr. Fielding, who recently served as a member of the September 11 commission and is a partner in a Washington law firm.

“Hopefully, I encouraged the good humor that went along with that,” he said, adding that Judge Roberts fit in well, because “he’s got a wicked sense of humor.”

In 1986, Judge Roberts left the White House for the powerful Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson. But three years later, he was back in the public sphere, when President George Bush’s administration tapped him as deputy solicitor general.

The high court justices quickly came to regard him as one of the best oral argument shapers. From 1989 to 1993, he won 25 of the 39 cases on behalf of the government before the Supreme Court.

By the mid-1990s, Judge Roberts, still a single man, took a turn away from the high-speed world of administration lawyering. He returned to Hogan & Hartson, where he was named a partner.

Friends recall that it was at a summer cottage in Delaware reserved for use by the firm’s associates that he first met his wife, Jane Mary Sullivan, also a Catholic and a lawyer for another firm.

The couple’s wedding was held at the exclusive Metropolitan Club in Washington, said Robert MacLaverty, a childhood friend who recalled Judge Roberts had thrown a “combined rehearsal dinner/bachelor party thing” the night before at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Manassas.

With Mr. Fielding and Mr. Starr, who became famous during the 1990s while investigating the Whitewater and Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandals and is now dean of Pepperdine University School of Law, among several high-powered lawyers on hand, the wedding was “a high-class affair, but it was a very warm kind of family-oriented feel to it,” said Mr. MacLaverty, now an investment banker in Chicago.

“It wasn’t like some Irish wedding where you’ve got beer bottles going and people singing songs,” he said, adding the new couple both “come from pretty strong parent-sibling upbringings” and even at the wedding, there was talk of having children.

But they were older than 40, and friends say that after trying unsuccessfully on their own, the Roberts decided to adopt two children.

In 1992, President George Bush nominated Judge Roberts to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. With Bill Clinton coming to office the next year, no confirmation vote was held and the nomination was withdrawn.

It was during the Clinton years of the 1990s that Judge Roberts emerged as a go-to appellate lawyer at Hogan & Hartson. Long a student to top judges and lawyers, colleagues recall that for the first time, he assumed the role of mentor to the up and coming.

“He was always very active in the training program for young litigators,” said Patricia A. Brannan, a partner at Hogan & Hartson who went to Harvard Law School with Judge Roberts. “He was a very accessible, very down-to-earth kind of a guy.”

Mrs. Brannan, describing herself as a “registered Democrat,” said the firm is bipartisan, with partners having served in Congress on both sides of the aisle. Judge Roberts was popular among young lawyers for his wisdom on how to prepare for anything before the Supreme Court.

He took particular joy in playing the role of judge during “moot court” sessions that prepared younger lawyers for their arguments, she said.

Shannen W. Coffin, a former Justice Department lawyer who participated in several such sessions with Judge Roberts, said he’s “usually a candidate for the smartest guy in the room, although he never lets on, there’s not an arrogance about him.”

During moot court, “it was impossible to outflank John in terms of preparation,” Mr. Coffin said. “John would always go to the heart of the matter and ask the most difficult question in the case and would have a good idea of what the answer to the question should be.

“It helped John, I think, prepare to be a judge,” he said.

Colleagues also said it was this reputation as a key adviser that found Judge Roberts in Tallahassee, Fla., during the 2000 election recount.

Aides from the Bush campaign had phoned him at Hogan & Hartson, seeking help preparing their case against Al Gore before the Florida Supreme Court.

“We had about 48 hours to get ready,” said Michael A. Carvin, another Washington lawyer who made the argument on behalf of the Bush campaign.

Mr. Carvin, a former president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the conservative Federalist Society, said Judge Roberts’ role was to provide guidance on federal aspects of the case and how to make the U.S. Supreme Court interested.

“John came over in the morning,” he said. “We batted around a few ideas. … John’s very bright and has excellent judgment about how to frame a case.”

“It was all very formal,” he said, adding that “people were paid,” but that he doesn’t know whether Judge Roberts, whose name is notably absent from the campaign’s legal briefs, accepted any payment for the work.

Mr. Carvin said it “would really surprise” him if Mr. Bush’s nomination of Judge Roberts’ in 2001 and 2003 or his subsequent nomination to the Supreme Court were “based on any special contacts with the administration as opposed to a pure merit choice.”

“He’s so well-regarded among the Washington legal community,” Mr. Carvin said. “I think John’s name popped up because if you went to central casting for a Supreme Court justice, John would fit everybody’s specifications for the relevant qualifications.”

In 2001, Mr. Bush nominated Judge Roberts to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, but he and more than two dozen others were blocked in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Bush renominated him in 2003, at which time the committee approved him by a vote of 16-3 with Democrats Richard J. Durbin, Edward M. Kennedy and Charles E. Schumer opposing. The overall Senate approved him by unanimous consent.

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