WASHINGTON -- Just two weeks before his nomination to the Supreme Court, John G. Roberts was playing the role -- literally.
At a reunion of lawyers who had clerked for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Roberts -- like other former clerks who had served under Rehnquist -- entertained the current staff by dressing as the high court's chief during different stages in history. Roberts donned heavy black glasses, fashioning himself as the '80s Rehnquist, to the amusement of the assembled clerks as well as Rehnquist himself.
But what everyone was really thinking was that Roberts would be donning the robes, for real, soon afterward, said Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame Law School professor who also clerked for Rehnquist.
''Everyone was talking about it," said Garnett, describing Roberts effusively as a ''lawyer's lawyer" who has the overwhelming respect of attorneys of all political stripes.
''I guarantee you that every lawyer who follows the Supreme Court, whatever their politics are, are thinking they really did pick the best boy," Garnett said in an interview last night after watching his friend be nominated to the post.
Roberts is considered a conservative, but he is not ideological as a lawyer or a jurist, his associates said. ''I don't think he's a movement conservative," and some people ''may be disappointed in that," Garnett said. But ''he is almost universally recognized as one of the best lawyers in this country."
Christopher Bartolomucci, who worked for Roberts at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson, said Roberts represented people with a variety of complaints before the courts.
''He's really taken all comers, which is what a good lawyer ought to do," Bartolomucci said in a telephone interview last night.
If Roberts indeed makes it to the Supreme Court, he'll be on familiar territory: he's been there 39 times as an advocate. Roberts, who currently serves as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, argued before the high court on 39 occasions as an appellate lawyer and won 25 of those cases.
Born in Buffalo, the son of a
Roberts attended both Harvard College, where he graduated with a history degree, summa cum laude, in just three years, and Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1979. Roberts served as managing editor of the Harvard Law Review.
From Cambridge, Roberts went to clerk in New York for Judge Henry J. Friendly of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then headed to the nation's capital, where he clerked for Rehnquist, then an associate justice on the high court.
Following his service in the judicial branch, Roberts stayed in government, serving as special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith. In 1982, Roberts went to the Reagan White House as associate counsel to the president, before moving to Hogan & Hartson in 1986.
Roberts left the firm to be US principal deputy solicitor general, in which he personally defended the government before the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts. He returned in 1993 to Hogan & Hartson, where Bartolomucci said Roberts developed a reputation as a thoughtful and thorough lawyer.
''You couldn't have a better resume if you started with a blank piece of paper and invented it," Bartolomucci said. At work, ''he expected a lot from you. He's such a good lawyer. You felt you've got to turn into this guy the very best you can produce, because he can see though any holes in an argument."
Bartolomucci described Roberts as the ''ultimate diplomat," and said he is dedicated to his wife, Jane, and their two adopted children, Jack and Josephine.
Roberts was nominated to the federal appeals court in Washington in 2003 by President Bush.
Garnett said Roberts's skills in the courtroom were widely recognized. Court clerks rarely watched arguments before the court, but they always watched Roberts, Garnett said, because he was such a captivating speaker.
''John was one of those guys all the clerks wanted to go see because he was so good -- it was like Tiger [Woods] hitting the ball," Garnett said.
''It had nothing to do with politics. We just wanted to watch Roberts and learn."