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US Chief Justice John G Roberts' career

31 May 2017 - By Geoff Adlam

United States Chief Justice John Roberts will visit Victoria University’s Law School in July to teach a four-day executive development course, “The United States Supreme Court in Historical Perspective”.

As might be expected for someone holding the highest judicial position in the United States, every aspect of Chief Justice Roberts’ life has been investigated and closely scrutinised. The moral and political stance of each member of the Supreme Court can have an important impact on the way the court interprets the Constitution and other laws. Supreme Court members are appointed for a lifetime term (the incentive to retire being a rest-of-life pension equal to their highest salary: not as high as you might think - if you get to the last paragraph of this, you could be surprised) and since 1971 the average age of retirement for a Supreme Court Justice has been just under 79. Appointed at the age of 50, Chief Justice Roberts could be the leader of the Court for a long time.

Entering the law

John Glover Roberts Jr was born in Buffalo, New York on 27 January 27 1955, making him 62. He had three sisters and his parents were John G “Jack” Roberts Sr and Rosemary Podrasky Roberts. He grew up in Long Beach Indiana and attended Notre Dame Elementary School and La Lumiere boarding school.

Photo of John Roberts CJ

Legal education

John Roberts received an AB from Harvard College in 1976, apparently with the objective of becoming a history professor. However, when he moved on to Harvard Law School he uncovered a passion for law and graduated magna cum laude (“with great honour”) with a JD in 1979. While studying law at Harvard he was managing editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review (for volume 92 – it’s now up to volume 131). Membership in the Law Review team is offered to second- and third-year students who are selected after an annual writing competition (the latest competition has just ended, on 20 May).

Legal career

After qualifying in law his legal career neatly falls into four parts, giving him experience in legal research and opinion writing, government, private practice and the judiciary. He served as a law clerk for Judge Henry Friendly of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1979–1980 and as a law clerk for then-Supreme Court Associate Justice William Rehnquist during the 1980 Term. Justice Rehnquist went on to become Chief Justice from 1986 to his death in 2005.

After the launchpad of his law clerking he became Special Assistant to the Attorney General, US Department of Justice from 1981–1982. He was Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan at the White House Counsel’s Office from 1982–1986, and was Principal Deputy Solicitor General in the US Department of Justice from 1989–1993.

From 1986–1989 (as an associate) and 1993–2003 (as a partner), he practised law in Washington, DC at the firm Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells).  While in private practice he headed his firm’s appellate division and he argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court. 

He was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2003. He authored 49 opinions during his two-year tenure. President George W. Bush nominated him as the 17th Chief Justice of the United States, and he took his seat on 29 September 2005. He was initially nominated to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (that's what the other eight members are called), but when Chief Justice Rehnquist died before John Robert’s confirmation hearings, President Bush nominated him as Chief Justice.

After apparently impressing with his detailed knowledge of Supreme Court precedent, John Roberts was confirmed by the full Senate on 29 September 2005 by a margin of 78-22, which was more than any other nominee for Chief Justice in US history. Aged 50, he was also the youngest Chief Justice since John Marshall in 1801. If you've got time, you can check out a clip of the confirmation hearing here.

Partner and children

Chief Justice Roberts married Jane Marie Sullivan in 1996. Jane is an attorney and, like Chief Justice Roberts, a Catholic (he is the 13th Catholic among 117 Supreme Court justices). They have two children - Josephine and Jack.

Views and opinions

Chief Justice Roberts is described as a conservative, although many commentators have tempered this by adding “moderate” following some of his opinions and voting pattern. It is clear that he is a man of principle who is driven by deeply held beliefs. He has been described as employing a more conciliatory style than some of the other Supreme Court members - on a court which more often than not is split and decides by majority vote.

During the late 1990s he was a member of the steering committee of the Washington DC chapter of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, which describes itself as a group of conservatives and libertarians aiming to reorder priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law. "The state exists to preserve freedom, ... the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and ... it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be," the Society states.

According to Biography.com, while in private practice in 1990 he wrote a a brief that stated Roe v Wade was wrongly decided and should be overturned and he co-authored a brief that argued in favor of clergy-led prayer at public school graduations. While on the Supreme Court he has indicated that he supports some abortion restrictions, voting with the majority in Gonzales v Carhart 500 US 124 (2007) to uphold the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. He did not join an opinion which stated that Roe v Wade should be reversed.

While on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals he filed the opinion in Hedgepeth v. Washington Metro Transit Authority (26 October 2004), which upheld the arrest of a 12-year-old girl for violating the “no eating food” policy at a Washington DC Metro station. This received a lot of criticism at the time.

During his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Chief Justice Roberts said that the issues he argued for while Deputy Solicitor General were the views of the administration he was representing at the time and not necessarily his own.

In 2010 Chief Justice Roberts concurred with Justice Kennedy in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission 558 US310 (2010) which declared that corporations have the same rights as average citizens engaging in political speech. Criticism of this decision says it ignores the vast discrepancy between a corporation's finances and average citizen and destroys years of reform efforts to limit the power of special interest groups to influence the voters. This prompted President Barack Obama to criticise the court's ruling during his 2010 State of the Union address and that caused Chief Justice Roberts to characterise President Obama's choice of venue to criticise the court as "very troubling".

In 2012, to the surprise of many, Chief Justice Roberts was the fifth vote in the 5-4 landmark United States Supreme Court decision National Federation of Independent Business v Sebelius 567 US 1 (2012) in which the Court upheld Congress' power to enact most provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

He also supported the less conservative justices of the Supreme Court in 2015 in a 6-3 decision which reaffirmed the legality of Obamacare in King v Burwell 576 US _ (2015) by supporting the subsidy programmes created by the legislation.

More recently, on 1 May 2017, Chief Justice Roberts again surprised when he tipped the balance by supporting the opinion of Justice Breyer and three others to prevent a 4-4 deadlock in Bank of America Corp v City of Miami, Florida 581 US _ (2017). This resulted in the Supreme Court finding that cities may have grounds to sue when banks make predatory loans to racial minorities (the facts of the case don't reflect well on some US banks). His stance saw one commentator opining that Chief Justice Roberts might be the new "swing vote" in the Supreme Court and in its ideological centre.

However, Chief Justice Roberts still has a conservative side, as shown in 2015 in the Obergefell v Hodges 576 US _ (2015) decision when the Court voted 5-4 to legalise gay marriage. Chief Justice Roberts was stridently opposed and produced a 29-page dissenting opinion. This shows that the views which prompted him to be active in the Federalist Society early in his career are alive and well. His opening statements are a good outline of the beliefs and principles which he holds:

"Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be. The people who ratified the Constitution authorized courts to exercise 'neither force nor will but merely judgment'," his opinion began.

"Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not. The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage. And a State’s decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational. In short, our Constitution does not enact any one theory of marriage. The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.

"Today, however, the Court takes the extraordinary step of ordering every State to license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening."

What does he earn?

Moving from a Washington DC law firm to become Chief Justice of the United States probably meant a big salary drop. At January 2017 the Chief Justice's salary was US$263,300. By way of comparison, our Chief Justice earns NZ$522,500 (US$370,953) plus an annual allowance of NZ$7,900.

Last updated on the 1st June 2017