Former President Richard Nixon has "no recollection" of discussing issues before the Supreme Court in White House meetings with Chief Justice Warren Burger, according to former attorney general John N. Mitchell.
Mitchell, who said he spoke with the former president yesterday morning, said Nixon disputed the claim of his former domestic adviser, John D. Ehrlichman, that such discussions took place during the Nixon administration.
Mitchell made the inquiry after a story appeared in The Washington Post, quoting from galley proofs of Ehrlichman's soon-to-be published book "Witness To Power." Ehrlichman wrote that on "several occasions Nixon, Mitchell and I openly discussed with the chief justice the pros and cons of issues before the court."
Ehrlichman specifically wrote of a Dec. 18, 1970, breakfast meeting at which he said the president expressed views on the " 'school cases' before the court.' " The school cases before the court at that time concerned busing, and the U.S. government was involved in the cases as a "friend of the court."
Mitchell said on Wednesday that he recalled no such discussions. Yesterday he said he "talked with President Nixon this morning and he stated to me that he has no recollection of any such discussions ever having taken place with the chief justice."
Ehrlichman, who had declined comment Wednesday, was unavailable for comment yesterday. He has said he will talk about the book when it is published. The book had been scheduled to appear in April, but a spokesman for the publisher said yesterday that the publication date had been moved up to February.
Burger also continued to decline all comment.
White House logs for the period, checked independently by The Post, show Nixon's schedule for Dec. 18, 1970, included a breakfast meeting with Mitchell, Ehrlichman and Burger, and indicate that it was to last from about 8:30 to 10 a.m. No indication of the subject matter is given in the logs.
It is not unusual for chief justices or justices to meet with presidents or attorneys general to discuss legislation affecting the administration of the courts or ceremonial matters.
Carter administration Attorney General Griffin B. Bell was a long-time friend of Burger's, for example, and often met with him and socialized with him when the two were serving in Washington, according to Bell's former top aide, Terrence Adamson. But Adamson said that the two did not discuss matters before the court.
"They both had a strong sense of propriety," he said.
Adamson also suggested that it was difficult, based on what he had heard and read on the Ehrlichman allegation, to determine whether any ethical line had been crossed. "It depends on precisely what might have been said," Adamson said. Even if an issue was "discussed by the president and the attorney general, the chief justice might say nothing. Maybe they just raised it and he sat there silently."
In another chapter, Ehrlichman writes that Nixon believed blacks were "genetically inferior to whites."
The former adviser said Nixon believed that such programs as open housing, affirmative action and busing "simply would never do any good."
"Twice, in explaining all this to me," Ehrlichman writes, "Nixon said he believed America's blacks could only marginally benefit from federal programs because blacks were genetically inferior to whites. All the federal money and programs we could devise could not change that fact, he believed. Blacks could never achieve parity--in intelligence, economic success or social qualities, but, he said, we should still do what we could for them, within reasonable limits, because it was 'right' to do so."
Ehrlichman's galley proofs also say that Nixon twice talked about appointing Spiro T. Agnew to the Supreme Court--an allegation that Agnew's former press secretary yesterday called "ludicrous." Ehrlichman writes that he told Nixon the Senate would "clobber" Agnew's nomination, and no more was said about it.
Ehrlichman also writes that Burger repeatedly pressed the White House to support a State of Justice or State of the Judiciary speech delivered each year to a joint session of Congress by the chief justice.
That proposal still exists, in the form of a bill sponsored by Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.). Heflin said yesterday that Burger has not said he is "for it or against it" but indicated he would give such a speech if invited.
Heflin said such a speech would be an "appropriate and dignified" way for the judiciary to tell the Congress of its legislative needs without breaching the separation of powers.
Heflin said objections to the idea have reflected a concern that "you'd have a lot of vacant seats" for the speech. "While they'd come to hear the president, they wouldn't come to hear the chief justice. It might be embarrassing," Heflin said.
As a remedy, Heflin said he proposes scheduling the speech to coincide with meetings in Washington of the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making arm of the courts. All the judges in the conference, Heflin said, could attend the speech and help fill up the chamber.