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Justice Robert's Heart Must Be Breaking

Vivia Chen

January 13, 2021

Robertsoath6-1This is the picture I can't get out of my mind: Justice John Roberts sitting at his desk, looking sad and anguished. He is thinking about the horrific riots on Jan. 6 and the role one of his former clerks played in fueling the mayhem.

Call me romantic, but I can't help wondering how Roberts must feel about Josh Hawley, his former clerk.

I'm guessing the chief justice is not feeling too proud.

My bet is that Roberts feels snookered and betrayed, much the same way that former Missouri Sen. John Danforth does about Hawley, his one-time protégé.

"Supporting Josh and trying so hard to get him elected to the Senate was the worst mistake I ever made in my life," Danforth told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Tony Messenger after the riots. "Yesterday was the physical culmination of the long attempt (by Hawley and others) to foment a lack of public confidence in our democratic system. It is very dangerous to America to continue pushing this idea that government doesn't work and that voting was fraudulent."

Danforth, writes Messenger, "once viewed Hawley as a 'special talent' who would bring keen intellect to the chamber"—an institution that Danforth says he's now "disgraced."

You can easily imagine how powerful men like Danforth and Roberts could see Hawley as a "special talent" worthy of their mentoring. Hawley had all the right stuff—academically successful, serious, clean-cut and so eager to learn. He's the ideal son that parents dream about. He might have been the conservative version of Pete Buttigieg.

Except Hawley is nakedly ambitious. Shamelessly so. And dangerously so.

Not only did he champion a spurious challenge to President-elect Joe Biden's win, Hawley raced to be the first senator to do so, even beating Ted Cruz to the punch in torching the election process. Hawley emerged as the whippersnapper who'd stop the electoral college vote, force the House and Senate to debate the legitimacy of the elections and, most importantly, get President Donald Trump's attention—even if most everyone knew the effort was a sham and a waste of time.

Worse, even after riots swept the Capitol, Hawley persisted in his mission. He also issued a self-righteous statement about his role: “I will never apologize for giving voice to the millions of Missourians and Americans who have concerns about the integrity of our elections. That’s my job, and I will keep doing it.”

It's not easy to do but Hawley is giving Cruz (another born-again populist who clerked for the Supreme Court) a run for the money in the department of preening hypocrites.

Roberts must be mortified. In both style and substance, Hawley represents everything Roberts seems to disdain. Though unquestionably conservative, Roberts has never been a predictable ideologue like justices Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito. Nor is he one for showmanship, such as the sort we saw with Brett Kavanaugh's overwrought emotional displays during his confirmation hearings.

During the Trump era, Roberts has emerged as the institutionalist—the one who reassures us that the center (albeit with a rightward tilt) will hold. He's taken pains to stress that the judiciary must operate above the political fray. He famously rebuked the president for attacking a federal judge in California. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges," said Roberts. "That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for."

Of course, as long as Roberts is on the court, he's unlikely to reveal his true feelings about Hawley, his fellow justices or his other clerks. (Fun fact: Hawley's wife is fellow Roberts' clerk Erin Morrow Hawley, who writes rhapsodically about her marriage for Focus on the Family. Until recently, she was a counsel at Kirkland & Ellis.)

I am only guessing at Roberts' reaction. But how can the chief justice, an institutionalist, not be pained to see his acolyte whacking away at the Constitution? So I keep returning to that image of Roberts looking despondent, like a parent who cannot quite fathom what he has spawned.

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Will Big Law Take Cruz and Hawley?



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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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