John Roberts (Justice) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Chief Justice John Roberts is a conservative American judge, serving as the top official in the Supreme Court since 2005.

Early Life and Education

John Roberts was born on January 27, 1955, in Buffalo, New York. From an early age, Roberts showed a deep interest in law and politics. After finishing high school, he chose to attend Harvard College. In 1976, he graduated with an A.B., a degree similar to a Bachelor of Arts. But he didn’t stop there. He decided to further his education in law and attended Harvard Law School. By 1979, he received his Juris Doctor (J.D.), a professional graduate degree in law.

Beginning of Legal Career

After finishing law school, Roberts started his journey in the world of law. From 1979-1980, he worked as a law clerk for Judge Henry J. Friendly. This job was with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is one level below the Supreme Court. He continued this path as a law clerk for Justice William H. Rehnquist of the Supreme Court during the 1980 Term.

Roles in Government

Roberts then took on a variety of government roles. He was the Special Assistant to the Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice from 1981–1982. This was a key role, assisting in the overall leadership of the entire Department of Justice.

Afterward, he served as Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan from 1982–1986. During this time, he worked in the White House Counsel’s Office, providing legal advice to the President. He later held the position of Principal Deputy Solicitor General in the Department of Justice from 1989–1993. This role involved representing the United States in cases before the Supreme Court.

Practicing Law

Between his government roles, from 1986–1989 and again from 1993–2003, Roberts practiced law in Washington, D.C. This gave him firsthand experience with the legal issues of the time.

Appointment to the Court of Appeals

In 2003, Roberts was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This court is often considered the second most powerful court in the U.S., after the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice of the United States

Finally, in 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him as Chief Justice of the United States. This is the highest position in the American judicial system. He took his seat on September 29, 2005. Since then, he’s been leading the Supreme Court, the final authority on American law.

Chief Justice Roberts’s Voting Record

Chief Justice John Roberts has been a central figure in the Supreme Court since his appointment in 2005. While it’s hard to pin him down to a single ideological label, some general trends do emerge from his voting record.

Roberts is often categorized as a conservative based on his voting patterns and legal philosophy. He tends to interpret the U.S. Constitution in a manner known as “originalism.” This means he tries to understand the Constitution as its writers intended instead of as it might be read today.

However, Roberts’s conservatism is marked by a degree of pragmatism. He often takes a careful, moderate approach to making decisions. For example, he surprised many when he sided with the court’s liberal justices to uphold key parts of the Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare, in 2012 and again in 2015. This was an unexpected move, as many conservatives oppose the Act.

Another trend is John Roberts’s concern for the institutional reputation of the Court. He appears to value the court’s image of being above politics. This concern has sometimes led him to cast votes that go against the conservative grain.

On issues related to criminal justice, Roberts generally leans conservative. He often votes in favor of law enforcement and has upheld capital punishment in several cases. But, he has also shown a willingness to support defendants’ rights in certain situations.

John Roberts’s voting record on social and cultural issues is mixed. He dissented in the 2015 case that recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. However, in 2020, he voted to extend workplace protections to LGBTQ+ individuals.

In summary, while Chief Justice John Roberts’s voting record broadly aligns with conservative principles, it’s marked by moments of pragmatism and moderation. His nuanced approach illustrates the complexity of Supreme Court decision-making.


From his birth in Buffalo to his role as Chief Justice, John Roberts’s journey shows dedication to law and public service. His story illustrates how education, hard work, and experience can lead to influential positions, impacting the whole nation.

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Last Modified: 06/04/2023

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