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Chief Justice Roberts wins early praise

Lighter tone, camaraderie at U.S. Supreme Court

By Bill Mears


Supreme Court
John Roberts
William H. Rehnquist

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Court watchers looking for an anecdote that illustrates how John Roberts is doing in his new role as chief justice point to the "Halloween incident."

It was late October, less than a month into Roberts' new job, and the case before the justices was fairly benign: a discussion of state immunity to debt claims in bankruptcy proceedings.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was addressing a lawyer when a light bulb 44 feet above her head exploded, raining down a tiny spray of glass and causing police officers to scramble amid the momentary confusion.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor quickly figured out what had happened, telling the audience, "A light bulb exploded. A light bulb exploded."

Quick with quip

Then Roberts spoke up. "It's a trick they play on new chief justices all the time," he said, bringing huge laughter. "We're even more in the dark now than before," he added.

Maybe, but the new guy had lightened the mood with some quick-thinking, self-effacing humor. The arguments went on.

And so it has gone this term, where an atmosphere of practically buoyant camaraderie has drifted through an institution that prides itself on continuity and certainty. This is in stark contrast to the mood during the year preceding Roberts' arrival, when anxiety over the health of his ailing predecessor, William Rehnquist, cast a cloud over the court's mood.

"The change has been amazing, the justices are a happy bunch again," said one court official, who asked not to be identified. "They joke in arguments, they joke among themselves privately. The chief was just the type of man this place needed."

Firm control, careful authority

The 50-year-old chief justice has left no doubt he is firmly in control, exercising his authority carefully and discreetly. But he does so no less forcefully than did his mentor Rehnquist, who led the court for 18 years before dying in September from thyroid cancer.

"One of the things that happens up at the court when a new justice arrives is a certain amount of delicate politicking," said Edward Lazarus, a legal analyst and author of "Closed Chambers," a behind-the-scenes account of the court.

"Liberals, the moderates and conservatives on the bench have been feeling out Chief Justice Roberts to see ... what kinds of arguments appeal to him, what kind of person is he," Lazarus said.

"Is he going to be someone who is going to be harder-edged, like a [Antonin]Scalia," Lazarus added, "or he is going to be the kind of very collegial person he was reputed to be, based on his experience in the D.C. Circuit?"

The answer soon became clear. Roberts' fellow justices appear to have taken to him quickly, welcoming him into their exclusive club from his first day on the job. Roberts is 35 years younger than the court's senior justice, John Paul Stevens. All but 57-year-old Clarence Thomas are older than 66.

Respect for seniority

Associates say the new chief respects seniority and on October 3, the first day of the new term, he broke precedent by letting Stevens speak first. The spry justice offered a moving tribute to Rehnquist, who had died the previous month, and whom court staff now refer to as the "old chief."

Stevens then turned to the future, welcoming the newest member.

"It is appropriate to note that in his prejudicial career our new chief justice argued 39 times before the court, a number that exceeds the combined experience of the rest of us," said Stevens, bringing wide smiles from the other jurists and an especially vigorous nod from O'Connor. "We know him well and he has already earned our respect and admiration."

Just weeks earlier, Roberts had been in their midst, uneasily. The justices had returned quickly from summer recess to be on hand September 6, when Rehnquist's coffin was carried into the Great Hall of the Supreme Court in a solemn procession.

Roberts, who had clerked for Rehnquist in 1980, was a pallbearer. The next day, they attended the funeral at a Washington church.

Smooth confirmation, quick ascent

Five days later, Roberts began his confirmation hearings, and by month's end he was sworn in by Stevens as the nation's 17th chief justice.

Court watchers give Roberts high grades for his work since being nominated in July to fill the vacancy of the retiring O'Connor.

Following Rehnquist's death, President Bush renominated Roberts to the chief justice spot. His private visits with senators -- who would ultimately approve him -- prompted wide bipartisan praise for his intellect and personality, despite some reservations among liberals over his judicial views.

His confirmation hearings were smooth, and could prove to be a model for future high-court nominees seeking to navigate a divisive political arena.

"He looks really good so far," said Jay Jorgensen, a Washington lawyer and former Rehnquist clerk. "He's been a breath of fresh air."

Learning curve

Roberts has told friends he faced an enormous learning curve as the court's new head, and was uncertain how to assert his newfound authority.

Justice Thomas recently told a judicial conference in Colorado Springs about the first meeting with Roberts in charge, when the justices gathered in a closed-door session to discuss pending cases.

By tradition, the chief justice speaks first in the conference, followed -- in order of seniority -- by the other justices. He addressed them formally, "Justice Stevens," "Justice O'Connor."

Then came "Justice Scalia." As Thomas related, the ebullient Antonin Scalia then spoke up. "I will always call you 'Chief,'" he said, "But for you, I'm 'Nino' and this is 'Sandra,' and this is 'John.'"

Those who heard Thomas' comments said the incident set the tone.

In big cases -- from physician-assisted suicide to abortion to the death penalty -- Roberts has presided as a thoughtful, assured justice, contributing easily to the often whirlwind give-and-take that characterizes oral arguments.

Assertive with lawyers

He is assertive, even insistent, to many lawyers arguing before him and, like Rehnquist, projects a no-nonsense image, cutting off lawyers who stray beyond their allotted time.

But, unlike the "old chief," Roberts displays a gentler side in public, perhaps belying his youth and eagerness.

He smiles and nods appreciatively at lawyers being sworn in to the Supreme Court Bar. He watches intently as other justices ask questions during oral arguments, attentive to their verbal sparring, and often jots down notes of what is said. During those sessions, he wears glasses, which often hang precariously off his nose.

"I think what every lawyer wants is a judge, whether conservative or liberal, who, when it comes to the job of judging, will call things straight and adhere to the rule of law," said Thomas Goldstein, a leading appellate attorney who has already argued two cases before Roberts' court.

"And I think that everything that everybody has seen has suggested John Roberts is like that," he added. "You want someone who is smart, who's experienced, and who's fair. And, by all accounts, so far, he certainly satisfies those criteria."

Many inside and out of the court see hints of Rehnquist's style in Roberts.

"It's too early to get a full sense of his leadership style, especially behind the scenes," said Jorgensen. "But his line of questioning, his ability to move the discussion toward his own ideas of the case, seems very much like our old boss."

Packs his lunch

Despite his new power, the chief remains much as he was before. He still brings his lunch to work most days, and eats in his chambers, say court staffers. He makes time for his family.

Halloween's light-bulb incident may have been a "trick," but the "treat" for Roberts was leaving work early and handing out candy to the neighborhood kids. Weeks later, he admitted sheepishly that he dressed as Groucho Marx, complete with black tape for a mustache.

The new job comes with perks. In his old job as a federal appeals court judge, Roberts drove himself to work or, more often, took the subway. Now, he gets chauffeured.

And he has become an attraction on the Washington social scene. At Vice President Cheney's recent holiday reception, the chief justice was surrounded by a large group of admirers, according to some who attended.

But the job has some drawbacks: his previous chambers offered a view of the Capitol; his new ones don't.

And friends say he worries about keeping up with the workload. He has five law clerks helping him with the court's caseload, some 8,000 appeals annually.

As chief justice of the United States, he must attend to a stream of administrative duties as head of the federal judiciary. One such duty requires he issue a year-end report on the U.S. courts, a "state-of-the-union" type summary of judicial, financial and bureaucratic priorities.

Challenging issues in 2006

Three months is too little time to assess Roberts' jurisprudence. He has issued only one opinion, a unanimous ruling in a jurisdiction case over attorney fees that broke little new legal ground.

It offered little insight into his judicial philosophy or his skill at forming alliances or forging consensus, skills needed by any chief justice seeking to lead a court often divided on major issues.

His skills and his philosophy may become more visible in the new year, when rulings on the contentious issues of assisted suicide and abortion will be issued, and oral arguments will be held on high-profile appeals: terrorist suspects facing military tribunals, a death-row inmate claiming new DNA evidence would exonerate him and a politically charged debate over a Texas redistricting plan.

Roberts will not remain the new guy for long. Samuel Alito faces confirmation hearings early next month to replace the retiring O'Connor and, if confirmed, would become the junior justice.

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