Democrats Feel Heat From Left On Roberts

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), left, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) released statements critical of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), left, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) released statements critical of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. (Melina Mara/twp - Twp)
By Charles Babington and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Major liberal groups accused Democratic senators yesterday of showing too little stomach for opposing John G. Roberts Jr.'s Supreme Court nomination, saying newly released documents indicate he is much more conservative than many people first thought.

The response was quick and pointed, as two key senators unleashed their sharpest criticisms yet of Roberts and sought to assure activists that the battle is far from over.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said in a statement: "Those papers that we have received paint a picture of John Roberts as an eager and aggressive advocate of policies that are deeply tinged with the ideology of the far right wing of his party then, and now. In influential White House and Department of Justice positions, John Roberts expressed views that were among the most radical being offered by a cadre intent on reversing decades of policies on civil rights, voting rights, women's rights, privacy, and access to justice."

Leahy, who previously treaded more softly on the Roberts matter, said the White House's refusal to release other documents being sought leaves Roberts "with a heavier burden to carry during his upcoming hearings."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee's senior member, also took his criticisms of Roberts to new heights yesterday in a letter to colleagues.

In a further bid to dispel an air of inevitability that liberals think too many Democrats have embraced, several organizations told allies that they will call for Roberts's rejection this month rather than wait for the Senate hearings to start on Sept. 6, as some members of the anti-Roberts coalition have urged.

The senators and liberal groups were reacting in part to a Washington Post article noting that many Democratic lawmakers have expressed little interest in mounting a strong fight against Roberts, barring unexpected disclosures. The senators' tepid stance has frustrated the organizations, which are important to the party, because they feel the information being gleaned from thousands of documents is starting to portray the nominee as someone considerably more conservative than the justice he would replace, Sandra Day O'Connor.

"What we've seen is breathtaking in his approach to weakening the enforcement of civil rights laws," said Nancy M. Zirkin of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "A picture is emerging that Roberts was there every step of the way taking the far right position. . . . He is no Sandra Day O'Connor."

The day's events revealed the tensions on the Democratic side as senators and liberal interest groups make different strategic calculations on how to position themselves for next month's nomination showdown. The interest groups want senators to be more aggressive. Meanwhile, some senators, according to aides, blame the groups for not doing more to build public opposition and to create the political climate in which it would be easier to speak out against Roberts without looking extreme. Liberal leaders say that they simply were being responsible and prudent, and that now their patience is paying off.

Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, said Democrats who support Roberts could face a voter backlash, particularly if he turns out to be as conservative as the groups contend. "History shows us that voters turned on Alan Dixon for his vote on Clarence Thomas and voters gave Arlen Specter the toughest reelection of his life," Aron said, referring to the former Democratic senator from Illinois and the current Republican senator from Pennsylvania. If grass-roots voters "are where we expect they'll be around the time of the vote [on Roberts], they'll remember long and hard."

Ralph G. Neas, head of the liberal People for the American Way, noted that "there have been almost daily revelations from the Reagan Presidential Library" indicating that, as a young White House lawyer, Roberts "was a charter member of the Reagan-Bush legal policy team that had attempted to dismantle the civil rights remedies" embraced by previous GOP administrations. He added: "I believe a significant number of progressive organizations will soon be coming out against the Roberts nomination."

Neas declined to say whether his group will be among them. But several liberal activists said they have been told that People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other major groups plan, before Labor Day, to urge Roberts's rejection. These groups have expressed concerns about Roberts since President Bush nominated him on July 19, but they have stopped short of calling for rejection.

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