John Roberts: A Roommate's View

John Roberts, President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, is passionate about law, history and golf. He also has a dry sense of humor, according to Richard Lazarus, who was Robert's roommate at Harvard Law School. Robert Siegel talks to Lazarus about Roberts' personal side.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now a personal view of Judge Roberts. Professor Richard Lazarus teaches at Georgetown University Law School. He and Judge Roberts were law school classmates and friends at Harvard. Later they were roommates.

Tell me, Professor Lazarus, if you tried to describe John Roberts in a nutshell to somebody who doesn't know him, what would you say first?

Professor RICHARD LAZARUS (Georgetown University Law School): Well, I would say he's a Midwesterner. I mean, John is a very down-to-earth person, very, very decent, very fair-minded individual. No, he's obviously an incredibly smart person, and everyone who's been around John knows that. But he's not someone who is at all self-important or has a big ego and is trying to sort of spend his time trying to impress you with his intelligence.

SIEGEL: From what we've heard, this is somebody who, certainly throughout school, worked and worked and worked and then, at work, worked and worked and worked and worked.

Prof. LAZARUS: That's absolutely right. John is a hard worker. I mean, a lot of people who are smart think that they don't have to work; that they can just immediately come up with the answers. John understood that you've got to work hard to think clearly and think intelligently. And so he never was impulsive about his decisions in any manner of speaking. And he always was working. That's what he was known for in law school. John was working all the time.

SIEGEL: Well, the big question about Judge Roberts for a lot of people today is: How conservative is he, and in what sense is he conservative?

Prof. LAZARUS: Yeah. I mean, I think John is certainly a conservative individual, but he's not an ideological person, and he's not a political person at all. He has never been, as long as I've known him--and I've known him quite well since 1976--I don't think he's been ideologically driven or politically driven either in his personal life or his professional life. And that's quite remarkable, especially here in Washington, DC.

SIEGEL: You mean when you say even in his professional life, you're saying that he had friends who were conservative and liberal?

Prof. LAZARUS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I'm someone who always voted for a Democrat for president. I remember when John and I had our first presidential election party in November 1980, and we had a donkey on the TV, which I put there, and an elephant on the TV that he put there. Our politics, I think, are quite different, but we're very close friends. And it's never been an issue with John in terms of how he picks his friends or how he picks his community.

SIEGEL: You teach environmental law on that subject.

Prof. LAZARUS: Yeah, I teach environmental law. John and I actually have worked on cases together.

SIEGEL: He has represented environmentalists ...(unintelligible)?

Prof. LAZARUS: He did. A few years ago I had a case that I was supposed to argue in the United States Supreme Court representing environmental regulators being challenged by the property rights movement in the Supreme Court. It turned out I couldn't argue the case because it conflicted with some teaching I was supposed to do at Harvard Law School. I asked John if he would take the case over. He did. He represented the environmental side of the issue and won a very nice case in the Supreme Court in the spring of 2002.

SIEGEL: I read a wonderful, self-effacing quote attributed to him, I think, by--when a client once asked him how...

Prof. LAZARUS: Yeah, right.

SIEGEL: What was it? `How did you lose?' How did it go?

Prof. LAZARUS: This was a case John, a few years ago--when he lost a case in the Supreme Court 9-to-0, which happens even to the best of them if you do enough cases, and John has done them. And after the decision came down, John had the task, which is never a lot of fun, of calling up this client and telling this client that they had lost and they had lost 9-to-0. And the client was just moaning and going, `How could this be? How could we have lost? How could we have lost 9-to-0?' And finally John just quipped back--he He said, `Well, I think we lost 9-to-0 because there are only nine justices.'

SIEGEL: (Laughs) Good thing Roosevelt hadn't packed the court, eh?

Prof. LAZARUS: Right, right.

SIEGEL: Could have lost 15-to-0.

Prof. LAZARUS: But that's classic John. The other thing that people who know him and people who work with him, he's very funny. He's very funny, not mean-spirited, not mocking, but very fun.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Lazarus, thanks for talking with us about your friend.

Prof. LAZARUS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Richard Lazarus, who teaches law at Georgetown University, talking with us about Judge John Roberts, President Bush's nominee to the United States Supreme Court.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): Our coverage of the Roberts nomination continues at npr.org, where you can find biographical information on the nominee, analysis and reactions to his nomination.

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