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Chief Justice John Roberts once famously and controversially described a judge's role as akin to an umpire who merely calls balls and strikes.

On Wednesday, Roberts offered a new take on that argument in a Supreme Court case about whether lawyers who sued to force changes in Georgia's foster care program could receive extra pay for their efforts.

A federal judge awarded the lawyers an extra $4.5 million on top of the $6 million they were due under a formula. U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob said their work was the best he'd seen in 27 years on the bench. Georgia appealed Shoob's decision.

Roberts was skeptical of Shoob's reasoning and the argument in defense of the extra money, which the court has previously said could be paid in undefined exceptional circumstances.

"The results obtained under our theory should be what the law requires, and not different results because you have different lawyers," Roberts said.

He said a judge who suggests otherwise appears to be saying, "'If you weren't there, I would have made a mistake on the law.'"

Paul Clement, the former top Supreme Court lawyer for the Bush administration, replied that capable lawyers can affect the outcome, a point not seriously in doubt in a court that regularly hears from the same band of high-priced appellate lawyers.

Finally, Roberts said good-naturedly: "Maybe we have a different perspective. You think the lawyers are responsible for a good result, and I think the judges are."

Clement responded, "And maybe your perspective's changed, Your Honor." Roberts was a top Supreme Court advocate before he became an appellate judge, earning more than $1 million in his final year in private practice.


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