Mr. Justice Junior

The new Supreme Court nominee has the same name as his father and his son. Is that a problem?

From left to right: Junior, Junior, and Junior Jr.

President Bush has nominated John G. Roberts Jr. for the Supreme Court. Let the body-cavity search begin! At first glance, Roberts seems reasonable enough. He graduated summa from Dear Old Harvard (class of 1976; click here to see him with 1970s hair), and he was managing editor of the Harvard Law Review. He is “[ o]ften described as steady and even-tempered.” He argued against Roe v. Wade when he was George H.W. Bush’s deputy solicitor general but later explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee that this represented not his own views but those of his client (President George H.W. Bush). CNN’s Jeff Toobin says he’s “an intellectual heavyweight.”

On the other hand, he’s a Junior.

Longtime readers of this column may recall my concern back in 2000 after the presidential contest became a two-Junior race. (Click here for part 1 of “When Junior Is President,” and click here for part 2.) Men named after their fathers grow up feeling that they have a lot to live up to, and they’ve been known to crack under the pressure. “We think it’s a very heavy burden for anybody to bear,” Ann Bernays, co-author (with her husband, Justin Kaplan) of The Language of Names, told me at the time. “Neither of us would ever name our child a Junior.” I elaborated this point:

The pressures of being a Junior tend to drive offspring either to great success or to mental breakdown. The Language of Names observes that 76 percent of the permanent elected officers of the Harvard Class of 1945 were Juniors, compared to only 21 percent of the class as a whole and about 3 percent of the general population. … But Juniors were also found to be three times as prevalent in the psych ward of a Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland, circa 1971, as in the population as a whole. This according to a study published [that same year] by Robert Plank in Names, a journal of “onomastics” (the study of names) put out by the American Name Society. Nobody has ever reproduced Plank’s results—fully 10 percent of the inhabitants Plank found in his Cleveland nuthouse were Juniors—but Edwin D. Lawson, a psychiatrist at State University College, Fredonia, N.Y., found elevated levels of Juniorness among manic depressives when he studied mental patients in Chautauqua County, N.Y., in the late 1980s.

Nowadays, naming your child after yourself is much likelier to be met with societal disapproval. The feeling is that to Junior a child is unacceptably narcissistic and patriarchal, the extreme example being the boxer/grilling tycoon George Foreman’s naming of his sons George Jr., George III, George IV, George V, and George VI. In Germany, it is actually illegal to name your child after yourself. I took Al Gore mildly to task for Junioring his own first-born son, observing that

Gore must have personally experienced the diminishment that comes from being a Junior; it’s what made him “Al” long before the advantages of a short, informal first name were recognized in politics.

Judge Roberts is similarly a “John sandwich,” positioned between a father and 4-year-old son with the same name. Narcissism, I suppose, is less likely to be a factor when one is continuing a family tradition. But Judge Roberts seems alarmingly fixated on the first letter of his Christian name. He married a woman named Jane, and his other child, a 5-year-old girl, is named Josephine. Is there some sort of Federalist Society cult surrounding the letter “J”?

Juniors tend to be smart and wound a little tight—President Bush is a notable exception—and apparently Judge Roberts is, in fact, a pretty tense guy. His college roommate (as quoted by Adam Guren in the Harvard Crimson) reports that as an undergraduate Roberts “was a great consumer of Pepto Bismol.” He also says Roberts decided not to apply to Stanford Law School because his interviewer wore sandals. Presumably Roberts has loosened up since then, but we should be on the lookout for Captain Queeg tendencies. On the other hand, Juniors tend to be respectful of tradition, which perhaps means that Roberts meant it when he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2003 that “Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land.” We could be looking at a very stare decisis kind of guy. That’s a way to be conservative, too.