U.S. Supreme Court

On history's stage: Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.

January 3, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

As the youngest leader of the high court in two centuries, he has the energy, the intellect, and the votes to reshape our world.

By Roger Parloff, senior editor

In January 1993 principal deputy U.S. solicitor general John Roberts Jr. was arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case brought by an inmate in a Nevada penitentiary. The prisoner, a nonsmoker who had been sharing a cell with a five-pack-a-day man, claimed that being subjected to so much secondhand smoke amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" in violation of his Eighth Amendment constitutional rights. The United States, represented by Roberts, was siding with Nevada in arguing that the inmate's plight did not rise to constitutional dimensions.

"What about asbestos?" Justice Byron White asked Roberts, according to the official tape of the argument. Could the warden of a prison with decaying asbestos pipes force an inmate to inhale those toxins too?

That would be different, Roberts said without hesitation. "When we go to a restaurant, they don't ask, 'Do you want the asbestos section or the non-asbestos section?' They do ask, 'Do you want smoking or nonsmoking?'"

The response, which broke up the room, illustrates a few of the traits that made Roberts "the best Supreme Court advocate of his generation," in the estimation of Tom Goldstein, a leading practitioner of the craft today, and the "gold standard" that such lawyers aspire to, according to Ted Olson of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, another member of that guild. Tapes of Roberts' arguments before the Court -- he delivered 39 of them -- bear out what numerous contemporaries recount: He seemed to anticipate every question, and responded instantly in complete, grammatical sentences salted with down-to-earth analogies and an occasionally wicked wit. More

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