July 24, 2005

Roberts' Rules of Order


Let me state up front, I’m just reading tea leaves.

That said, I think the chances are good that John Roberts will take over Sandra Day O’Conner’s role as the mediator between the Supreme Court’s more liberal and conservative members.  To put it another way, I don’t think Roberts — at least personally — has a hidden agenda. 

Why do I say this?

I think family portraits are typically very revealing of psychological traits and personality styles.  The shot above is the single family photo the Roberts clan picked out to submit to the media.  Of course, it might not be be representative for any number of reasons.  If it is, however — and I’m speaking as a liberal right now — I find it somewhat reassuring.


I don’t know if things might have been a little contentious or distant between John’s parents.  Or maybe John was just favored by both parents as the only boy.  Whatever the dynamics, John can be seen to form a connection between the parents and possibly even hold the two together.  (Notice how Mom is turning away from Dad with her left shoulder and head, and Dad sits independently upright?) 

I wouldn’t be as keen on the photo, however, if I hadn’t seen it after
reading several biographical sketches of Roberts.  In most every quote
from Roberts himself, as well from the comments and anecdotes of
others, what emerges is the picture of a man who subsumes his own
preferences in favor of achieving a consensus.

Consider these sample comments from last week’s extended profile of Roberts in the NYT:

"[H]e just got along with everyone."

"Judge Roberts … stood out for his even-tempered nature and his ability to engage with people with many different viewpoints."

"[Roberts was] very interested in what other people had to say."

"Judge Roberts said to me a long time ago there was no case he had been on where he couldn’t have done the other side."

Perhaps the strongest evidence of character style involves the job
Roberts chose on the Harvard Law Review. From all indications, Roberts
had an intellect that was hardly matched. Rather than write, however,
he job the chose of managing editor.

[College friend Stephen] Galebach said the fact that Judge
Roberts’s position at the law review was managing editor "tells a lot
about John." He added: "Managing editor is the one who just makes sure
everything is done to a high level of quality. It’s the ultimate
position of not injecting your own views, but allowing other people to
reach high levels of scholarship."

Far from being a scientific investigation or a representative
sample, I was curious if there were other visual examples (either from
portraits or other key events in Roberts’ life) that might show a
preference for being in the center. The NYT slide show on Roberts’ life
has four group photos. I pulled out the three where it seemed the
people had arranged themselves. In each case, what I did was mark the
exact center of the photo in red.

The first photo is Roberts’ High School drama club photo.  Roberts is in the front row, second from the right.


The next shot is from the Harvard Law School Yearbook depicting the Law Review staff.  Roberts is the one circled.   


The last image is from a wedding of one of Roberts’ best friends.
Roberts is third from the left. (Notice how strongly he is leaning to
his left? Although he is leaning toward his best friend, who is the


Maybe this is all coincidence.  Or maybe it’s not and Roberts is a peacemaker and natural centrist — but maybe his ultra-right wing wife has more influence on him than we can know.

I realize I’m supposed to remain paranoid, but I just don’t get
the feeling this guy is going to be doing anything too extreme —
except, perhaps, to try and get Ginsburg and Scalia to make nice.

(image 1: AP Photo/Roberts Family.
Undated. Made available Thursday, July 21, 2005 by the family. image 2:
La Lumiere High School yearbook. Undated. image 3: Harvard Law School
Yearbook. Undated. image 4: wedding photo. 1981.)

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Michael Shaw
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