The life of John Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court's youngest chief justice in 200 years
Gerald Herbert / AP
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts listens as President Bush speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Friday, April 7, 2006.
- Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., 64, is the most powerful judge in America.
- The conservative leaning, Harvard-educated judge is presiding over the Senate trial that will decide whether to convict President Donald Trump in his impeachment inquiry.
- He's been lauded for his intelligence since he was young. While he's been chief justice of the high court since 2005, he became the new swing vote in 2019.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Everyone knew John G. Roberts Jr. was going to achieve something big.
His life has been lived in some of America's most well known institutions. After graduating from Harvard University, he worked on and off in the White House. He had a successful private practice, and appeared in the Supreme Court 39 times, winning 25 of the cases.
Then, at 50, he became America's 17th Supreme Court chief justice. He is the youngest person to lead the court in 210 years.
He's a gifted speaker and writer, who can be funny and self-deprecating. As The New York Times wrote: "Roberts is an erudite, Harvard-trained, Republican corporate-lawyer-turned-judge, with a punctilious, pragmatic view of the law."
He's politically conservative. And although he's long leaned to the right, his ideology bloomed during his time working in the Reagan administration.
He's also sometimes been a hard figure to define. According to Joan Biskupic, who wrote a biography on him, he's divided by an ideological urge to push the court to the right, and a desire to keep the Supreme Court from becoming a political tool.
Here's a look at his life so far, in photos.
John Roberts was born on January 27, 1955 in Buffalo, New York. He and his three sisters were raised in Indiana, where his father John Sr. was a plant manager for Bethlehem Steel. His intelligence was obvious right away — he regularly got perfect marks in elementary school.
He grew up in a Catholic household that was, according to his mother Rosemary, concerned about news and the world. "We have always been a family that was interested in things other than ourselves," she told The New York Times.
At 13, he sent a letter to an elite Catholic boarding school called La Lumiere, asking to be admitted. He wrote, "I've always wanted to stay ahead of the crowd. I won't be content to get a good job by getting a good education, I want to get the best job by getting the best education."
Roberts got into La Lumiere, where jackets and ties were required. He was captain of the football team, and an excellent student. In his junior year he played Peppermint Patty in the play "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown."
He was studious. One time he dominated several classes explaining a book report he'd written on seven philosophy books. In contrast, his classmates did their best to speak for a few minutes. One of his peers told The New York Times that when Roberts got something wrong people were quicker to believe it was the teacher's mistake.
After high school, he studied history at Harvard University. His dream was to be a history professor. In 1976, he graduated summa cum laude after just three years. But instead of teaching, he chose law. He went on to Harvard Law School, and graduated magna cum laude.
While campuses were still feeling the effect of the liberal 1960s, Roberts was a bit of an outlier. He wasn't overly political, but he was conservative. His respect for institutions can be seen throughout his life — from the Catholic Church, to Harvard, to the White House, and finally, the Supreme Court.
In 1979, he clerked on the New York's federal court of appeals under Henry J. Friendly. Roberts was one of his favorite clerks.
He then clerked for the conservative Supreme Court Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist. This was a pivotal job. It got Roberts noticed, and marked as "someone who could be trusted," Steven Teles, a political science professor, told The New Yorker.
In a speech about Rehnquist in 2009, he said the first lesson he learned from him was that "clothes do not make the man."
In 1981, he entered the White House during Ronald Reagan's tenure. For a year he was an aide to Attorney General William French Smith. Then, from 1982 to 1986, he worked in the counsel's office. He was in the administration in a time when its legal team was trying to push laws to the right.
Files released from his time in the White House showed his quick wit. In one memo about a college professor who was afraid of landing on a blacklist, he wrote, "Once you let the word out there's a blacklist, everybody wants to get on." It also showed he could make mistakes — he spelled Havana, Cuba's capital, wrong three times.
In 1986, he started working at Hogan & Hartson, a law firm in Washington. He worked there until 1989, and then again from 1993 to 2003. He represented big corporations, as well as groups like the National Mining Association. By the time he became a judge, he was earning more than $1 million a year.
In between, he worked for former President George H.W. Bush's administration as principal deputy solicitor general from 1989 to 1993. One memorable brief he wrote said Roe v. Wade was "wrongly decided and should be overruled," because there was no basis for the decision in the constitution.
In 1996, he married lawyer Jane Marie Sullivan, another practicing Catholic. She was also was a board member of an anti-abortion group.
They adopted two children when they were in their 40s — Josie and Jack.
Over his career as a lawyer, he won 25 out of the 39 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.
In 2003, former President George W. Bush made him an appeals court judge. It was his third nomination; the other two had failed.
Two years later, Bush nominated Roberts, at age 50, to replace Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But it didn't happen.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Roberts' old mentor, had died, and Bush switched his nomination to have Roberts replace Rehnquist. He dismissed concerns about his age, and in his memoir, wrote, "Beyond the sparkling resume was a genuine man with a gentle soul."
Brett Kavanaugh, who was then Bush's staff secretary, helped the president decide on his nomination. He told Bush to choose the person who would be "the most effective leader on the court — the most capable of convincing his colleagues through persuasion and strategic thinking."
During the confirmation hearing, Roberts argued the role shouldn't be political. He told senators: "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules. They apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire."
Rep. John Lewis fought the nomination, and said Roberts had been on the "wrong side of history."
There was another well-known dissenter that day. Then Sen. Barack Obama said, "When I examined Judge Roberts's record and history of public service it is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak."
Despite their dissents, the senate voted 78-22 to confirm Roberts. In 2005, he was sworn in as the youngest chief justice in 210 years.
According to The New York Times, although he was undoubtedly conservative, by becoming the leader of the Supreme Court, he might have been moved a little more to the political center.
His responsibilities to the court meant he didn't want it to appear overly political. As Garrett Epps wrote for The Atlantic, "Roberts exudes a quality of wary watchfulness, for all the world like a tight-lipped headwaiter supervising dinner rush at a four-star restaurant."
Roberts has written some important opinions. Some of the defining cases during his tenure have been about healthcare, spending in political campaigns, and the right to bear arms.
Roberts' first big opinion was dismissing a school integration plan in Seattle in 2007. He also featured in a dissenting opinion about forcing the EPA to take on climate change.
In July 2007, Roberts was hospitalized after he had a seizure while at his holiday home in Maine. He had one 14 years earlier, but the cause was unknown. He fully recovered.
In 2008, he voted with the majority in District of Columbia v. Heller, expanding the Second Amendment making it legal for individuals to own guns.
In 2012, Roberts was the deciding factor in the future of the Affordable Care Act. His vote saved Obamacare from being struck down. It was controversial — he was applauded by liberals, and attacked by conservatives.
In 2015, he dissented against recognizing a constitutional right for same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. "This Court is not a legislature," he wrote. "Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us."
Even with all of these opinions, he's said he was born in the wrong era because there was no longer as much room to "decide the great questions," according to The Atlantic.
In 2018, Justice Anthony Kennedy — long the tiebreaking vote on the court's hot-button cases — retired. President Donald Trump appointed conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh to take his seat.
This shift made Roberts' vote the new deciding factor in many close cases. As The New York Times wrote: "the law is likely to be what he says it is."
Roberts and President Donald Trump have clashed. Trump called him an "absolute disaster." But in November 2018, after Trump attacked judges for being too political, Roberts came out swinging.
"We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges," he said. "What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for."
In June 2019, he finally assumed "true leadership," according to The New York Times. This was because he had sided with liberals to stop the Trump administration from including a citizenship question on the census, and also sided with conservatives on an issue around voting districts.
In his 2019 annual end of year report, Roberts wrote, "We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity and dispatch."
It's apt advice for his next job, which is to oversee Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate.
During a case this month, Roberts' courtroom erupted in laughter when he questioned whether saying "OK, boomer," counted as age discrimination. It showed that even with the pressure that comes from the impending historic case, he's still got his sense of humor.
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