Jane Sullivan Roberts on Family, Heritage and Faith
Her husband may be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but Jane Sullivan Roberts is an amazing success story all her own.
Jane Sullivan Roberts, 54, is one of those rare Washington women who won’t let her husband’s achievements overshadow her. When your husband is John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, that’s quite a trick, but it is one Jane Roberts pulls off with verve and panache.
She’s a terrific lawyer in her own right, and right now is one of the top recruiters with Major Lindsay and Africa, one of the major legal recruitment firms in the capital.
You get some sense of the intellect of the woman by looking at her biography. It states in part, “Prior to joining MLA, Jane was the Executive Partner for Talent Development at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Before assuming this role, she was a partner in the firm’s Global Technology Group focusing on IT sourcing and procurement of satellite systems.
“Jane also practiced litigation at Shaw Pittman and Dorsey & Whitney in a wide variety of matters before various courts and decision-making bodies. In 1992, Ms. Roberts litigated before Australian courts with then Arthur Robinson & Hedderwicks, a leading law firm in Australia. Jane also clerked for the Honorable James M. Sprouse, Federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, during the 1984-85 Term. Before entering the legal profession, she taught mathematics at the high-school and college levels and was a Systems Engineer at Bell Laboratories.”
In addition, she’s busy raising her two children Josephine and Jack, which she says is the ultimate grounding experience for her and her husband.
Ireland is part of that grounding too, and when we met in her Washington office she was busy planning her upcoming trip to Ireland where she and her husband will be staying in the little Irish cottage they part own in Knocklong County Limerick not far from her mother’s home place in Charleville on the Limerick/Cork border.
Jane’s husband John is eager for the trip as well. “He loves it. The way to his heart was through the golf. So our first trip, there was a lot of golfing, and he really enjoyed it. And last summer we didn’t get any golfing, and we hiked the Glen of Aherlow; there are many things to do there, it’s fabulous. We came to Ireland from Austria, and we did hiking there, but the hiking in Ireland is wilder; there’s hardly anybody out there, and it’s just us and the sheep. It was fabulous, great to get away.”
Hiking in the Irish mountainside, staying in a small lrish cottage, visiting with the locals and dancing at local festivals – that is the Roberts itinerary. It sounds like an idyllic trip and one that Jane was clearly looking forward to – no limousines or major receptions, just family and friends.
It is clear there are no airs and graces about Jane Roberts or her husband. When her husband was appointed by President Bush many of the profiles referred to her lack of pretentiousness, driving around in an old Volkswagen, making no effort to be noticed or with the in crowd.
There was a light moment after President Bush made his announcement on national television that John Roberts would be the next Supreme Court justice in July 2005. Their five-year-old son Jack impishly took over proceedings and commenced dancing away under klieg lights to his heart’s content. Jane Roberts confesses to being mortified at first but later laughing about her free-spirited son.
On another occasion at the White House when John Roberts as new Chief Justice was introducing his family to the president, Jane’s mother had wandered off somewhere to look at the White House treasures and kept the president waiting. Jane laughs at the memory, “Only in America,” she says.
She recalls just one occasion when she was suddenly struck with a sense of awe – at a dinner for Queen Elizabeth, when the sight of her husband sitting beside the monarch momentarily made her realize what they had accomplished together.
Perhaps she is grounded because nothing got handed easily to Jane Sullivan Roberts, a fact that becomes apparent when you speak with her A child of Irish parents, from the Bronx, she grew up in modest circumstances.
She remembers well the rooms set aside in her apartment for the use of the greenhorns over from Ireland, of whom her mother was once one.
When she was growing up the sights and sounds of Ireland were never far from her mind. Irish dancing and music classes gave her a grounding in her heritage, and her parents’ strong Catholicism and sense of duty stayed with her all her life.
There was also the famous relative – Eugene O’Neill, no less – to brag about. “We have a letter from O’Neill who described a relationship, I can’t remember exactly, but he knew exactly what it was. We were always proud of that,” she says.
“There’s a lot of pride in our Irish background. We did Irish dancing, we did Irish music, had parties in my home where my grandfather and I danced together. Everybody had to have a party piece. I typically danced. I had one song, the ‘Gypsy Rover’ and I’m still asked to sing that song,” she says, laughing.
Her mother, Kathleen Theresa O’Carroll, was her role model. She is still hale and hearty at 80. “My mother was very smart. She graduated high school at 16 having skipped two classes, and she graduated with honors. She was the only student in the whole town accepted to university – University of Cork. And she didn’t go because it seemed so unattractive; she said you go to Cork and live with some old biddy, and she wanted no part of that. She broke my grandfather’s heart in that sense. He forced her to do a typing course, because he said ‘you’re equipped with nothing,’ and that, in fact, is how she made her living at her first employment in New York.”
Her mother came to New York and ended up marrying the next-door neighbor, John Sullivan, by all accounts a remarkable man.
Jane Sullivan Roberts takes her deep commitment to Catholicism from him. “It’s probably more from my father,” she says about her faith. “He was very devout, but not in a pious sort of way. He had done theological studies in Iona College, so it was a mature faith as well. I probably have a bit of an analytical nature, and that appeals to me as well. He was a very clear thinker, he could cut through a whole lot of nonsense, and see things clearly, whether it’s political or social distinction, or religion. So I probably get that from him.”
As for the recent scandals involving pedophilia and the church in Ireland, she is still grappling with what it all means. “I’m still trying to reconcile all of that. I haven’t read the reports. I don’t know what to make of it. My mother would say the Mercies [Mercy nuns] have no charity, and the Charities [Sisters of Charity] have no mercy. But that was kind of the extent of her criticism of the religious. The question is, was it just confined to the orphanages? And the unwed mothers? That’s a terrible thing.”
Her parents had no easy time raising their family in the hungry fifties. “My dad started out in advertising and then he had a job on Wall Street; this was 1954/’55 and there was a recession and Catholics were the first ones laid off on Wall Street. He had me at the time, and my other sister was coming along, so he got a job in construction where, oddly, there was work.
“Then he was a fireman in a New York City public school, and then he settled into being a mechanic for electric ice machines for a post office.”
Jane’s parents both insisted their children get the best education, especially the girls. They had seen many women left bereft when the man of the house lost his job or was killed in workplace accidents, which were very common then. Little wonder then that Straight A student Sullivan found herself among the first class of girls ever to enter Holy Cross College in Massachusetts and later went to Georgetown Law School.
Holy Cross was an experience that defined her.
“The first week I had a date every day, one day there were two dates and I called my mother and said this is too much. To go from an all-girls school, it was too much. But things settled down, the girls were very talented and serious and everybody got down to studies. The college could not have been more welcoming. We constantly had meetings in the dorms, to see how progress was. And the professors were very welcoming, at a substantive, academic, intellectual level.”
She worked her way through high school and college. “I always had jobs. When I was 15 I worked in Ocean City, New Jersey, as a waitress and hostess one summer, and later I got a job in a restaurant in a Jewish neighborhood, working 5-8 every night. It was perfect because I could go to school, work and then go out on a date afterwards. But I made enough money to cover my books and uniforms.”
Even in college as through her entire life, Ireland was never far from her thoughts. “The first trip that I remember was in second grade, in 1962, and we stayed in the house that my mother grew up in in Charleville, County Cork. The family had six children, relatives roughly our age, so we had lots and lots of fun. I just remember the freedom, because we could just run out the back of my grandma’s house. She lived in town, but right behind her house was farmland. The town was basically just one street. We jumped the hedges, and played in the fields.
“Here I was, a Bronx kid, and in the summer in Ireland we could milk cows. It was just terrific. We went hiking together with my cousins, up the hills, and I remember banana and mayonnaise sandwiches. I still love that. Sugar on everything in Ireland. My cousins had rotten teeth! Then, there were always the parties, and everyone had their party piece. We visited the sights, the castles.”
Her love of Ireland is not lost on her husband.
John Roberts is of Welsh, Czech and Irish stock. His Celtic genes emerge at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Ireland where he has danced on his frequent trips to the Emerald Isle. He also regularly attends ceilis and can dance the “Walls of Limerick” with the best of them, according to Jane.
But Jane was never going to be just an accessory to a famous husband. By the time she met John Roberts she was already a star in the legal firmament in Washington and an activist on many issues.
Her first meeting with her husband speaks volumes. They met at a beach house and she left soon after for a year in Australia. However, that first impression lasted for both of them. When they met again she bet him he didn’t remember what she was wearing the first time they met. He did, and she remembered what he wore too.
She appreciated his intense interest in his own roots in the steel towns in Indiana and his sense of place and culture in a society where firm roots are ever harder to find and define. “We were very attracted to each other,” she says shyly. “We had so much in common.” Besides, she notes, he charmed her Irish mother no end.
She had no qualms when he accepted the Supreme Court job, despite the intense scrutiny. “ I had utter confidence in my husband,” she says. “I had confidence in his intelligence, and his integrity and his ability to handle whatever was asked of him.”
Judge Roberts’ Senate hearings will be remembered as one of the most brilliant confirmation hearings ever, in which he dazzled even his sternest critics.
Ironically now that he is on the court earning about $217,000 Jane is the major breadwinner. A recent story from Ireland noted that Chief Justice of the Irish Supreme Court earned about $450,000 last year.
Jane Sullivan Roberts notes that if Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed there will be six Catholic judges out of nine on the Supreme Court – an indication how far Catholics have come since the bad old days of discrimination, and a testament to Catholic education.
She too mirrors that journey in her own way, from the Bronx to Washington and a firsthand view of history. She stays rooted, however, in what got her there, her family, her heritage and her faith. “I am truly blessed on all those fronts,” she says.