Two men, one middle-aged, the other in his 20s, barely drew any notice as they strolled the streets around the Supreme Court, deep in discussion about the law.
One was William Rehnquist, a justice on the nation's highest court. The other was his clerk, John Roberts.
Rehnquist, as was his practice in earlier days, preferred walking and talking to understand the details of a case, simply stepping out the front door of the court for an extended saunter and thoughtful conversation with one of his three clerks.
Rehnquist's death on Saturday night eliminated the chance that the bond between justice and aide would be renewed a quarter-century later if the Senate confirms Roberts as the nation's 109th member of the Supreme Court.
"If you're a 27, 28-year-old lawyer, the idea of walking Capitol Hill for 30 minutes with a justice of the Supreme Court and discussing and arguing about cases, that's as cool as it gets," said Dean Colson, a Roberts colleague now a lawyer in private practice.
Both supporters and critics say Roberts appears to be on track for confirmation. Several Republicans say Roberts already has the likely support of all but two or three of the 55 GOP senators and perhaps a few Democrats; that's enough to assure confirmation unless liberals launch a filibuster.
Confirmation hearings begin Sept. 6.
The year as clerk to Rehnquist, whose brand of conservatism has steered the court to the right in the decade since his elevation to chief justice, is one of many influences in Roberts' life and legal career.
The Supreme Court nominee has clerked for a pre-eminent appellate judge, Henry Friendly; held sought-after political jobs in the Reagan and first Bush administrations and spent more than a decade at Hogan & Hartson, a well-established law firm appropriately located a few blocks from the White House. For the last two years, Roberts has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a common stepping stone to the nation's high court.
President Bush's pick personifies the Washington establishment, fittingly Republican and clearly conservative. In his writings, Roberts has described abortion as a tragedy, assailed activist judges, scoffed at the notion of a fundamental right to be free of discrimination and expressed support for school prayer.
A multimillionaire, Roberts, 50, is married to a lawyer, Jane Sullivan Roberts, owns a white brick colonial in the wealthy suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., and has two adopted children, ages 4 and 5.
Typical of presidential nominees, Roberts has granted no interviews since Bush announced his choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on July 19. The lasting image from his numerous meet-and-greet sessions with senators has simply been a broad smile.
Intelligence, a sharp wit and irreverence emerge from his copious writings as a White House and Justice Department counsel, as does evidence that Roberts is a stickler for correct spelling and grammar.
In a 1984 memo on President Reagan's remarks on the environment, Roberts took exception to the following sentence on acid rain: "Once we have the answers we need we will follow it up with a major acid rain program," arguing, "That's somewhat like the old frontier saying that the defendant would be hung after a jury trial."
He has shown the bravado of his intellect, writing an entire memo in French. He used the Latin phrase mutatis mutandis, "with all due adjustments or modifications having been made," in a one-paragraph memo about the style of invitations for the counsel's office Christmas party.
In an April 19, 1983, missive on creating an additional federal court to help relieve the high court's workload, he observed that "while some of the tales of woe emanating from the court are enough to bring tears to the eyes, it is true that only Supreme Court justices and schoolchildren are expected to and do take the entire summer off."
Roberts has criticized conservatives and Congress, sometimes bluntly. He said a conservative backer of Reagan could "go soak his head" after complaining about the administration. He said what Congress does best is "nothing."
Robert Knauss, who shared a cramped, 20-by-15-foot office for Rehnquist's clerks with Roberts and Colson from July 1980-August 1981, sees several similarities between the chief justice and Bush's nominee.
"They're both really smart. They're both great writers. Both have a knack for a turn of the phrase. Both are history buffs and incredibly well-read ... Both are very funny," said Knauss, who also noted a common Midwestern demeanor.
Roberts, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., grew up in Indiana. Rehnquist hails from Wisconsin.
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