The White House said yesterday that it has examined federal tax returns from Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., but it would not commit to allowing Senate Judiciary Committee investigators to review them as part of the confirmation process.
Democratic senators, meanwhile, continued pressing the administration for records related to Roberts's time in the solicitor general's office, saying they feared there would not be enough time to review them unless the White House moves promptly.
White House aides have been dismissive of the demands for records, but an influential Republican, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.), expressed sympathy for the Democrats. Referring to a letter Democrats sent President Bush this week complaining about withholding of Roberts-related documents, Specter said: "I'm not at all critical of [the letter]. I think it's perfectly appropriate."
On the controversy over tax returns, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Roberts gave his federal returns for the past three years to the White House counsel's office while lawyers there were vetting him. Asked if the returns would be made available to Senate investigators, as they have been for previous high court nominees, McClellan said, "There just hasn't been a request at this point."
By yesterday evening, Judiciary Committee Democrats stopped short of making such a request. But they expressed surprise with revelations that the Bush administration in 2001 had dropped the practice of routinely collecting and reviewing tax returns for nominees to all federal courts.
In past nomination battles, Judiciary Committee staffers with security clearance had been allowed to review such returns. Democratic staffers said their bosses are proceeding cautiously, wary of being portrayed as indiscriminately seeking documents with no bearing on Roberts's judicial philosophies.
Based on information the White House provided Tuesday night, The Washington Post reported yesterday that the administration would not seek Roberts's tax returns, settling instead for a "tax check" performed by the Internal Revenue Service. A White House spokeswoman said yesterday that she had not been aware Tuesday that an exception had been made in the Roberts case.
As researchers continued poring over hundreds of documents from Roberts's 1981-1982 tenure in the Reagan Justice Department, Democrats pressed for selected documents from his later tour in the solicitor general's office, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The White House says such papers are protected by attorney-client privilege.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said in a speech that the documents could provide "a practical sense of how, when and why politics and the law intersect for him." He said Democrats "are constructing a targeted catalogue of documents" they are seeking, rather than making blanket requests.
Party leaders remained at odds over whether to start Roberts's confirmation hearings just before or just after Labor Day. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned Republicans that undue constraints on opportunities to question the nominee could trigger opposition to him.
The Judiciary Committee sent a questionnaire to Roberts this week, members said. Its instructions include: "Please discuss your views on the following criticism involving 'judicial activism.' The role of the federal judiciary . . . has become the target of both popular and academic criticism that alleges that the judicial branch has usurped many of the prerogatives of other branches and levels of government."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.