Roberts’ Reserve Perplexes Senators

As a schoolboy in Indiana, one of his former teachers recalls, John Roberts staked out his seat in the back row at the far corner of the room.

Teddy Liddell is now retired and living not far from where Roberts and his three sisters were raised by their parents in the town of Long Beach on the edge of Lake Michigan. She remembered the young man, in a telephone interview, as “a quick learner who was very humble about how bright he was.” Roberts preferred observing his peers to being observed. His instinct, Liddell said, was to excel quietly, out of the center of attention. When she would put a math problem on the board, she said, Roberts never offered up his hand. But if she called on him, he knew the answer.

Now that Roberts, a 50-year-old federal appeals judge, is President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, what seems a lifelong propensity for keeping his ego under wraps, his emotions on the low burner and his opinions to himself has left the question of what makes him tick mostly a guessing game for the senators on both sides of the aisle who will be involved in his confirmation hearings.

Roberts has not delivered provocative speeches to law school classes that anyone has unearthed. On the bench only two years, his opinions that can be dissected are limited. And while his wife, also an attorney, has affiliated herself with ideological causes, including a leadership role in Feminists for Life of America, an anti-abortion group, Roberts has steered clear of activism that could label him.

Through academia and then the legal profession _ at Harvard, as a Supreme Court clerk, a government lawyer for Republican presidential administrations, a corporate appeals litigator, and a federal appeals court judge _ Roberts has emphasized substance over style, developing acclaim for his legal skills while living the part of the earnest Midwesterner who keeps his opinions to himself.

In the leafy, high-end neighborhood of Chevy Chase, Md., just across the District of Columbia line, where Roberts and his wife moved after he became a judge in 2003, neighbors interviewed this week say he is courteous, friendly, but not engaging. He isn’t a regular at neighborhood block parties, but neither is he aloof. Even the couple’s cream colored, brick home, worth more than $1.2 million, fits his mold, worthy of the couple’s station in society but not ostentatious. The neighborhood, meanwhile, traditionally has attracted Democratic elites.

At the Hogan & Hartson law firm in Washington, where he argued cases before the Supreme Court before becoming a judge, Roberts led a section that specialized in corporate appeals. Among his clients were Toyota, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and health maintenance organizations. Former colleagues, who asked their names be withheld, described him as revered for his skills, approachable as a mentor, and warm in social settings, but as one who would rarely initiate after-work engagements.

Among Roberts’ friends are members of the John Carroll Society, an association of Catholic professionals and businessmen founded in Washington in 1951. Roberts’ wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, is on the board of governors.

Even men who have bonded with Roberts friends, lawyers who’ve known him for years, worked or worshiped or socialized with him, said in interviews that he does not instinctively confide his passions or innermost thoughts to them.

“He’s a very nice man, a charming man, but also somewhat reserved,” said Patrick J. Schiltz, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, who developed a friendship with Roberts over work they’ve done together on an appellate law advisory committee.

“I know he’s a devout Catholic, but I don’t know that from him. It’s not the kind of thing he offers,” Schiltz said. He said Roberts also has never spoken to him about his beliefs on controversial topics including abortion. “I don’t think I remember him starting a conversation about his kids or anything personal, but if you ask him, ‘How are your kids?’ he’ll tell you.”

Roberts loves to talk about sports, to keep conversation light, to diffuse tensions with self-deprecating jokes. Although he doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve, Roberts’ friends and acquaintances believe they have a pretty good idea of his core values.

“He is conservative in the old-fashioned sense of the word,” Schiltz said. “He will be very cautious about how quickly the law changes on anything. He’s not going to want the law to be moving too quickly in one way or the other.”

Friends also reject the idea that Roberts’ private nature is calculated to protect his career plans.

“I think like any accomplished lawyer he wants to rise to the top of his profession,” said Shannen Coffin, a Washington lawyer and friend. But as for the Supreme Court nomination, Coffin said, “I don’t think John Roberts had done everything in his life to make this happen. He’s a gentle humored, self-effacing person. Sometimes those people are given their just rewards over people with sharp elbows and obvious ambition.”