Low-Key Choice For Hot Seat Job

Federal appeals court judge John G. Roberts Jr. speaks after being introduced as President Bush's nomination to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Tuesday, July 19, 2005, at the White House in Washington. AP /APTN

Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. pairs a youthful demeanor with a sharp, seasoned legal mind that has impressed Ivy League professors, government lawyers and U.S. presidents.

Befitting his age of 50 and limited time on the appellate court, the book on his judicial decisions remains a work in progress.

CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen says Roberts is "the Establishment personified – Harvard College, Harvard Law School, clerkship with Justice William H. Rehnquist and a job at the Solicitor General's office. He was a millionaire lawyer in private practice who gave it up for a spot on the bench worth less than $200,000 per year."

President Bush on Tuesday tapped Roberts to become the nation's 109th Supreme Court justice, introducing him to the nation in prime time.

"He has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court and earned a reputation as one of the best legal minds of his generation," said the president as Roberts stood at his side, broad shoulders hinting at his days as captain of his high school football team.

"I reviewed the credentials of many well-qualified men and women. I met personally with a number of potential nominees," Mr. Bush said. "In my meetings with Judge Roberts, I have been deeply impressed. He's a man of extraordinary accomplishment and ability. He has a good heart."

Roberts, often cited by friends for his self-deprecating wit, recalled his appearances before the high court.

"I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court, and I don't think it was just from the nerves," he said.

There were wins — and losses, including one rout.

"One case he lost 9-0 and he had to call up his client, which is never a fun thing to do," recounted Richard Lazarus, a Georgetown University law professor who has known Roberts for nearly three decades and roomed with him in Washington. "His client was just incredulous, beside himself. 'How could we have lost 9-0?' John finally just quipped back, 'Because there are only nine justices.'

"That's very typical. Fast and funny and sometimes self-deprecating," Lazarus said.

President Bush also liked Roberts' story. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., he grew up in Long Beach, Ind., where he worked summers in the same steel mill where his father was an electrical engineer and served as high school class president and captain of the football team. At Harvard, he majored in history and graduated summa cum laude.

William P. LaPiana, now a professor at New York Law School, recalled Roberts' joking about the effect of a top grade he received in a course on American intellectual history.

"I remember him walking into the room and saying, 'Gee, maybe I can get my head through the door,'"' LaPiana said.

A prelaw adviser to Roberts at Harvard, LaPiana said, "Post-adolescents who are really bright sometimes get carried away with themselves, and he certainly never did."
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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