July 5, 1997

John Roberts

John Roberts, with 25 Supreme Court cases under his belt, will argue for Alaska.

Trip up court steps is Roberts' 26th

By Sheila Toomey
Daily News reporter

The lead lawyers squaring off before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Venetie Indian country case are both smart, personable Harvard graduates.

The resemblance ends there.

John Roberts, 42, heads the appellate division of Hogan & Hartson, the biggest law firm in Washington, D.C., with 420 attorneys on staff.

He has practiced law for 18 years, holding several jobs during that time but never straying from the anterooms of the powerful. He has argued 25 cases before the Supreme Court.

His opponent, Native American Rights Fund attorney Heather Kendall-Miller, has never appeared in that forum.

Roberts is billing the state $292.50 an hour, a discount on his normal $325-an-hour fee, according to deputy attorney general Barbara Ritchie. Kendall-Miller bills her time at $145 an hour.

Born in Hamburg, N.Y., Roberts grew up in Indiana where his father was a steel industry executive. Roberts worked summers in the mills.

At Harvard he was managing editor of the Law Review, which is a big deal in law school. After graduation in 1979, he clerked for two federal judges, including now-Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

His first real job as a lawyer was as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith. In 1982, he moved to the White House for four years as associate counsel to President Ronald Reagan. He went into private practice for three years after that, emerging in 1989 to become deputy solicitor general of the United States during the Bush administration. That's where he got much of his experience appearing before the Supreme Court, which is the basis of the unique service he sells to clients like the state of Alaska, namely, knowing how to persuade the court to accept or reject an appeal.

More than 5,000 petitioners try to get their appeal before the court each year. The justices accept about 150.

In this case, Roberts and his colleague, Gregory Garre, filed a 30-page petition for review in early April, urging the high court to accept Alaska's request for reconsideration of the Indian country ruling. Different courts have reached different decisions on the issue, and the justices really should make a rule for everyone, it said.

The petition reflects Roberts' style -- delivered in plain English and to the point.

''I've never considered myself an Easterner,'' he said. ''I consider myself a small-town boy from the Midwest. I still get a lump in my throat every time I walk up the steps of the Supreme Court.''

Roberts has visited Alaska once, back in 1981. Venetie is his first Indian country case. He said he took it because he believes it has a good chance of making the cut with the justices. Although no final decision has been made, he expects he will probably argue the case for the state, if it gets that far.

Roberts said he's not just a hired gun, that he genuinely believes in the state's position against the existence of Indian country in Alaska. ''It's a very important case,'' he said, ''an interesting issue.''

And taking any case before the Supreme Court, well, ''It's not just another day in the office for us.''

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