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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)

The groups are now highlighting several items found in documents from Roberts's days as a lawyer in the Reagan White House and Justice Department. They include his calling a memorial service for aborted fetuses "an entirely appropriate means of calling attention to the abortion tragedy," and his reference to the legal underpinnings of the right to an abortion as the "so-called 'right to privacy.' " The groups note that Roberts once wrote that a Supreme Court case on prohibiting silent prayer in public schools "seems indefensible." Roberts, they say, had also called a federal court decision that sought to guarantee women equal pay to men "a radical redistributive concept."

"As we review more and more documents, I think we're finding more evidence that Roberts would vote with the far-right wing of the court and against civil rights protections," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.

In his letter to colleagues, Kennedy said recently released evidence "shows that he was on or beyond the outer fringe of that extreme group eager to take our law and society back in time on a wide range of issues of individual rights and liberties, and on broad issues of government responsiveness to public needs." For instance, Kennedy said, he "opposed effective voting rights legislation, and wanted to restrict laws vital to battling discrimination by recipients of federal funds."

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement: "All this talk about whether Democrats will support the Roberts nomination is laughably premature. . . . The White House has so far refused to produce relevant documents, and the documents we have seen raise questions about the nominee's commitment to progress on civil rights."

Responding to Leahy and Kennedy, White House spokesman Steve Schmidt said: "It is disturbing to see the ease with which some senior Democrats are willing to distort Judge Roberts's record and writings as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration."

"Hopefully, these letters do not signal the abandonment of a dignified process by the Democrats," Schmidt added.

Some activists would prefer that liberal organizations withhold judgment until the Senate Judiciary Committee holds its hearings to avoid being labeled as knee-jerk obstructionists. But others worry that the nomination process is starting to look like a coronation just as records from the 1980s are beginning to provide grounds for the tough questioning of Roberts and possibly for votes against his confirmation.

Leahy asked the Reagan library yesterday to release 478 pages of Roberts-related documents that were withheld this week, noting that portions could be blacked out for privacy reasons if necessary.

With Democrats holding 44 of the Senate's 100 seats, liberal activists concede that it would be extremely difficult to block Roberts's confirmation. But they urged those senators yesterday to show more openness to the possibility if more documents and the hearings suggest that Roberts is in the mold of conservatives such as Justice Antonin Scalia.


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