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New York – Those poring over Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts’ record “will have such a tough time finding an ideology,” writes TIME’s Nancy Gibbs. “Given the uncertainty, his manner and habits of mind take on greater importance—and there is extraordinary consensus about his powers to win whatever argument he is in.”

Roberts won 25 of the 39 cases he argued before the Supreme Court in his government and corporate jobs. “All the selective readings of his case file obscured the point that he argued for and against affirmative action, for and against environmental regulations, argued that Roe v. Wade should be overturned…and then described it as settled law,” according to Gibbs.

“The burning question now, with (Sandra Day) O’Connor gone, is, How will the court rebalance?,” questions Gibbs. “Justice Anthony Kennedy is more likely to take her place than Roberts.”

In confirmation hearings that could be scheduled as early as September, “No one expects Roberts to answer directly any questions that Senators may pose on abortion, gay marriage and other issues,” writes TIME’s Karen Tumulty. Senator Sam Brownback tells TIME he will probe indirectly by asking Roberts his views of the Constitution—specifically, whether it is a “living document” or should be interpreted according to the wishes of the framers. Brownback admits he is not likely to get very far that way and says he remains wary. And disappointed? “Ask me in two years when he rules on some of these cases,” Brownback says. “I’ll probably be ecstatic—or really kicking myself.”

TIME’s examination of Roberts quotes more than a dozen people who know him or his record:

Ken Starr, who remembers Roberts’ advice when he returned one day from arguing a case before the Supreme Court. Roberts, his principal deputy at the time, told Starr, then solicitor general, “Ken, let me tell you, you’re waving your arms too much.” Roberts flailed his hands and arms to demonstrate to Starr what he had done in front of the justices. “I looked like I was trying to take off, birdlike,” Starr says, “He was right, and I began disciplining myself to hold my arms behind my back, grab the podium and generally use my hands in less wildly gesticulating ways.”

Gregory Garre, former colleague and fellow Rehnquist clerk, remembers Roberts racing around Hogan & Hartson with a white legal pad, jotting questions he might be asked and then answering them. “I don’t think he brought it to the supermarket, but he would have it with him in the office, and he’d bring it home at night.” He would amass 300 questions and answers for a major case.

Richard Garnett clerked for Rehnquist more than a decade after Roberts. “If we heard that Roberts was going to be arguing, everybody would go down to watch because he was just that good. It was kind of like if you heard that Tiger was going to be hitting on your home course’s driving range.”

C. Boyden Gray, a White House counsel in the first Bush Administration, when the Supreme Court shut Roberts out 9 to 0 in a commercial case, recalls the clients ranting, “How could we lose 9-0?” Roberts’s self-flagellating response: “Because there were only nine Justices.”

Steve Glover, Harvard Law classmate, recalls, “There were a few people on the Law Review that were social conservatives, very strong views about abortion, separation of church and state. John was not one of them.”

Jack McCay, law partner of Roberts’ wife Jane and a friend, speaks of the couple’s adoption of John (Jack) and Josephine, born in Ireland 4 1/2 months apart. “As frequently happens when you go through the adoption process, some of the efforts weren’t successful, and it continued for a time … But when the opportunity came along to have not just one but two kids, they took both babies without blinking.”

Richard Lazarus, a longtime pal now a law professor at Georgetown, plays squash with Roberts. “You need to know whether (the other player is) right-handed or left-handed because it dramatically affects your strategy.” But Roberts is ambidextrous. “I’ve played (squash) with a lot of people over the years, including Scalia,” says Lawrence Robbins, a fellow Harvard Law alum, “and John’s the only one I know who can do that.”

John McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, says Roberts knows so much about the current justices that “He’s more prepared than any nominee in living memory to move right in and act like he’s been there for awhile… For a while, it’s going to be like having a shadow litigator up there. He’s going to be very sharp at finding the weaknesses of their cases.”

Dorothea Liddell, Roberts’ 8th grade math teacher, has kept only his birthday in her birthday book among generations of students. “I like to think it was an omen for wonderful things to come.”