Chief Justice John Roberts picked a low-key Washington lawyer on Thursday to be the federal courts' top administrator, and said he hoped the new leader will improve the judiciary's relations with Congress.

James Duff, a top aide to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist from 1996-2000, will become the head of the 900-employee Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

He will represent the federal courts before Congress, in seeking higher salaries for judges, making annual budget requests, and bolstering efforts for better security.

Duff, a 53-year-old father of three and former member of the University of Kentucky basketball team, is a well-liked Georgetown University Law Center graduate who is familiar to many at the Supreme Court and on Capitol Hill. He beat out 98 other applicants for the job.

He takes the job following a rough year of relations between judges and Congress, stemming from unpopular rulings and legislative efforts to stop what critics call "judicial activism."

"It's a good chance for a fresh start and a renewed effort to improve relations between the Hill and the judiciary. And I think Jim will be very effective in doing that," Roberts told Supreme Court reporters Thursday, in his first sit-down briefing since becoming chief justice last fall.

Roberts said: "This is a great opportunity for whatever disagreement or lack of communication is built up, for that to be addressed."

Duff replaces Leonidas Ralph Mecham, who is retiring after 20 years heading the office, which provides administrative, legal, financial, management, program, and information technology services to the federal courts.

Mecham was a Washington lobbyist when he was chosen for the job in 1985 by the Supreme Court. Since then, the law has been changed and Roberts, as chief justice, picks the director of the administrative office.

Duff has been managing partner of the Washington office of the Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz law firm for the past six years. His appointment was announced Thursday to a large crowd of employees. "We're a team and we're going to work together," he told them.