The White House will make public the bulk of documents related to Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s service as a lawyer in Ronald Reagan's administration but will withhold papers generated during his time as deputy solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush to preserve privileged internal deliberations, officials said last night.
The policy was crafted in response to demands by Senate Democrats who want to look at files connected to Roberts's tenure in two Republican administrations for clues to his views as a potential justice. The White House said it settled on the policy in consultation with Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and that some documents would be available for review beginning today.
The agreement to release some Roberts documents came as the White House quietly presses Senate Republicans to start hearings on his nomination before Labor Day, in part to shorten the amount of time that liberals have to research and attack him, Republican sources said yesterday. Specter has said he wants to hold a week-long hearing just after Labor Day following the Senate's August recess. The negotiations on timing and other matters have lasted for days and may not be resolved until mid-week, Senate aides said.
The issue of how much of Roberts's record in government to release has emerged as a key point of contention between Republicans and Democrats since President Bush nominated him last week. Rather than launch a frontal attack on Roberts, Democrats have focused on pressuring the administration for documents, expecting to use any refusal against him as they have with other Bush nominees.
Senior administration officials outlining their response last night said the partial release should be sufficient. "This is an effort by the administration to give all the documents that are appropriate to the Congress to help make sure they have the information they need to move through the nomination process," one official said.
But the White House clearly does not expect Democrats to agree. The officials disclosed the new policy under ground rules requiring anonymity and an embargo until midnight, too late for Democratic reaction. Democrats have pushed for papers from throughout Roberts's government career, including the solicitor general's office.
"I urged the representatives of the White House to be as cooperative as they possibly could," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said earlier yesterday after meeting with Roberts. Asked whether Democrats might filibuster the nomination if the administration withholds documents, Lieberman said, "I hope we don't reach that point."
Under the White House policy disclosed last night, all documents related to Roberts stored at the National Archives will be released immediately and sent to the Judiciary Committee. Reporters will be able to review them in a reading room. These documents fill six boxes and stem from Roberts's service as special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith from 1981 to 1982, officials said.
Documents related to Roberts's work in the White House counsel's office from 1982 to 1986 that are at the Ronald Reagan library will be released after review, officials said. The administration will ask the library to expedite its review of the documents and then will review them itself before release. Officials said they might withhold papers at the library with "national security implications, personal privacy concerns and other concerns," but not many. "It is the intent of the administration to disclose all of them," one official said.
But documents stemming from Roberts's work as deputy to Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr during the first Bush presidency will remain secret except for any that were sent to the National Archives by the Clinton administration in 1998. Such internal memos are key to the solicitor general's deliberations over legal strategy, and releasing them would damage traditional privilege, officials said.
On the question of when to open hearings, senior Republicans said White House officials worry that idle time allows Democrats to seize on relatively minor incidents to cast doubt on Roberts. They cited a Washington Post report that his name appeared in the Federalist Society's 1997 leadership directory even though he has said he did not join the conservative organization.
"They don't want to have any extra time for the Democrats to savage the guy," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said in an interview. "Their left-wing groups haven't gotten all geared up yet." A later hearing date, he said, "would give them more time to get geared up."
Hatch, a Judiciary Committee member, said Democrats want to start the hearing Sept. 12. He predicted the two sides will "split the difference" by starting Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day. A four-day hearing starting Sept. 6 would give the full Senate three weeks to debate and vote on Roberts before the Supreme Court's new session, which begins Oct. 3.
Under an agreement between committee Republican and Democratic leaders, all 18 members will be allowed to make 10-minute opening statements, and Roberts will have 15 minutes, which should consume most of the first day, aides said. Senators then can question him for 30 minutes each for a total of nine hours. Senators expect Roberts to attend two days of hearings, with other witnesses consuming two more days.
Staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.