Roberts Papers Being Delayed

By Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Thrown on the defensive by recent revelations about Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s legal work, White House aides are delaying the release of tens of thousands of documents from the Reagan administration to give themselves time to find any new surprises before they are turned into political ammunition by Democrats.

Before Roberts's July 19 selection by President Bush, there was no comprehensive effort to examine the voluminous paper trail from his previous tours as an important legal and political hand under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, administration officials said.

Three weeks later, these officials say they recognize that Roberts's record is going to be central to Senate confirmation hearings scheduled to begin Sept. 6, and lawyers and political aides are urgently reviewing more than 50,000 pages -- at the same time denying requests from Democrats for an immediate release.

While the White House plays catch-up in studying Roberts's past, it is facing complaints from some of its conservative supporters about what they feel has been a stumbling campaign for the nominee.

Sean Rushton, director of the conservative Committee for Justice, said in the days after the nomination "there was a drop-off of message and focus."

"Merely saying 'He's a lawyer's lawyer' isn't enough," Rushton said. "This is the moment to explain why so many of us feel so strongly about the judicial system in ways that can change hearts and minds of swing voters who could be added to the Republican column."

While Rushton said the White House has belatedly begun to "ramp up" its campaign, his complaint was echoed by several other conservative activists. They think Bush aides have reacted defensively about revelations highlighting Roberts's role as an advocate for conservative causes rather than making an unapologetic argument that he was on the right side of these issues.

While serving in the Reagan and Bush administrations, for instance, Roberts argued against affirmative-action quotas and other civil rights remedies that conservatives regarded as reverse discrimination, and he expressed deep skepticism about what he called the "so-called right to privacy" that underpins the constitutional right to abortion.

"They should be embracing those memos," said Bruce Fein, who worked with Roberts in the Reagan Justice Department. "They are squandering the opportunity to move public perception."

The administration had little control over the release of most of the documents that have come to light so far from Roberts's time as a special assistant to then-Attorney General William French Smith and later as an associate counsel to the president. That's because these papers had either already been made public by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library before the nomination or been cleared for release by the National Archives by previous administrations.

But White House aides are exerting full control over the documents still under their authority. Under an executive order signed by President Bush in 2001, the White House has the right to review, and in some cases block, the release of presidential papers from previous administrations. White House lawyers have been dispatched to the Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif., where they are combing through documents that have not been released.

With the exception of documents that will be withheld for national security or privacy reasons, the White House said it plans to turn over all the documents by the start of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, and those that Senate Democrats have identified as priorities as early as Aug. 22.

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