Documents Show Roberts Influence In Reagan Era

Continuing his courtesy visits to senators, Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., center, talks to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) near her office.
Continuing his courtesy visits to senators, Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., center, talks to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) near her office. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By R. Jeffrey Smith, Jo Becker and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Newly released documents show that John G. Roberts Jr. was a significant backstage player in the legal policy debates of the early Reagan administration, confidently debating older Justice Department officials and supplying them with arguments and information that they used to wage a bureaucratic struggle for the president's agenda.

Roberts presented a defense of bills in Congress that would have stripped the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over abortion, busing and school prayer cases; he argued for a narrow interpretation of Title IX, the landmark law that bars sex discrimination in intercollegiate athletic programs; and he even counseled his boss on how to tell the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow that the administration was cutting off federal funding for the Atlanta center that bears his name.

The documents are from Roberts's 1981-1982 tenure as a special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith. Like previously reported memos from Roberts's stint in President Ronald Reagan's White House in the mid-1980s, the documents made available from the National Archives yesterday show a man in his mid-twenties deeply engaged in the conservative restructuring of government that the new president had promised.

To a greater extent than the White House documents previously released, the more than 15,000 pages of Justice Department memos show Roberts speaking at times in his own voice. In memos to the attorney general or senior officials of the Justice Department, Roberts argued for restrictions on the rights of prisoners to litigate their grievances; depicted as "judicial activism" a lower court's order requiring a sign-language interpreter for a hearing-impaired public school student who had already been given a hearing aid and tutors; and argued for wider latitude for prosecutors and police to question suspects out of the presence of their attorneys.

In the rare instances revealed in the documents in which Roberts disagreed with his superiors on the proper legal course to take on major social issues of the day, he advocated a more conservative tack.

In one instance, he wrote a memo to the attorney general urging Smith to disregard the recommendation of William Bradford Reynolds, the head of the agency's civil rights division, that the administration should intervene on behalf of female inmates in a sex discrimination case involving job training for prisoners.

"I recommend that you do not approve intervention in this case," Roberts wrote. He said that such a step would be inconsistent with the administration's belief in judicial restraint and that, if equal treatment for male and female prisoners was required, "the end result in this time of state prison budgets may be no programs for anyone." Besides, he said, private plaintiffs were already bringing suit.

On June 15, 1982, Roberts faulted the Justice Department for the outcome in Plyler v. Doe , in which the Supreme Court overturned a Texas law that had allowed school districts to deny enrollment to children who had entered the country illegally.

Roberts argued that if the solicitor general's office had taken a position in the case supporting the state of Texas "and the values of judicial restraint," it could have "altered the outcome of the case."

"In sum, this is a case in which our supposed litigation program to encourage judicial restraint did not get off the ground, and should have," Roberts wrote.

Much of Roberts's time at the Justice Department was taken up by the debate over GOP-sponsored bills in Congress that would have stripped the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction over abortion, busing and school prayer cases. He wrote repeatedly in opposition to the view, advanced by then-Assistant Attorney General Theodore B. Olson, that the bills were unconstitutional. He scrawled "NO!" in the margins of an April 12, 1982, note Olson sent to Smith. In the memo, Olson observed that opposing the bills would "be perceived as a courageous and highly principled position, especially in the press."

Roberts drew a bracket around the paragraph, underlined the words "especially in the press," and wrote in the margin: "Real courage would be to read the Constitution as it should be read and not kowtow to the Tribes, Lewises and Brinks!"


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