John G. Roberts Jr. built a golden reputation as a "lawyer's lawyer" without doing most of the things that lawyers do. He never filed a lawsuit, addressed a jury, cross-examined a witness, took a deposition or negotiated a deal. He never advised a client on a tax return, a plea bargain, a restraining order, a will or a divorce. If he ever got into a confrontation with opposing counsel, no one seems to remember it.
That is because Roberts has spent most of his career as a star -- by all accounts, a superstar -- in the most rarified constellation of the legal galaxy, the exclusive club of Supreme Court appellate specialists. Now that Roberts has been nominated to sit on the court as its leader instead of standing before it as an advocate, his 17-year membership in that genteel, apolitical, almost academic club of overachievers may reveal more about his legal mind than his six-year stint as a brash, young Reagan administration aide or his two-year tenure as a federal judge.
There are 1 million lawyers in America, but only about two dozen Supreme Court specialists, nearly all white, nearly all male, nearly all based in Washington. They include staunch Republicans such as former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson and staunch Democrats such as former solicitor general Seth P. Waxman, but most of them will represent almost anyone with a case before the court; Waxman keeps a statue of a gunslinger in his office, a reminder that he's a hired gun. Roberts had a typically non-ideological practice, defending welfare recipients and environmental groups as well as coal and car companies, and once offering free advice to a gay rights group in a landmark anti-discrimination case.