After sitting mostly silent for more than a week after the Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr., liberal activist groups and their allies in the Senate yesterday expressed growing concern about the conservative positions Roberts advocated while working as a young Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration.
Memos and other documents from Roberts's work as a special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith show that Roberts took positions that some of those groups regard as hostile to civil rights. The documents show that he advocated a narrow interpretation of a variety of civil rights laws, and presented a defense of congressional efforts to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over busing, abortion and school prayer cases.
The emerging portrait of Roberts, liberal activist groups say, is not that of a dutiful advocate who was a step above the political fray, as Roberts has been described by his White House sponsors and supporters. Instead, they say, the documents reveal Roberts as an intense and ambitious partisan who appears to have been at the center of the Reagan administration's efforts to put a conservative stamp on government.
"With every passing day, it is becoming clearer that John Roberts was one of the key lieutenants in the right-wing assault on civil rights laws and precedents," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group.
Roberts's sparse paper trail from his two years as an appeals court judge and the 22 years he spent as a lawyer, both for private clients and for the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, have made it all but impossible for activist groups to separate his personal views from those of his clients. Consequently, many have been forced to reserve judgment on his nomination. But the recent release of thousands of Justice Department documents, while covering only a small span of Roberts's work, is raising serious questions among civil rights leaders and liberal advocacy groups, which are beginning to think they may have the ammunition they need to oppose him.
"The question is: Who is John Roberts? What does he really believe?" said Theodore M. Shaw, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, during an appearance at the National Urban League convention here yesterday. "What we're finding out is troubling. I've moved from a position of neutrality to being deeply disturbed."
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, speaking at the same forum, echoed that sentiment. He said he found the documents "to be extremely troubling. They seem to reflect the work of a deeply committed ideologue."
Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defended Roberts, saying the memos reflect only the advocacy requested by his bosses. McConnell cautioned against trying to glean too much about Roberts's views from the documents that have been released. News reports, he said, "run the risk of simplifying complex constitutional issues beyond recognition."
While acknowledging that the memos are not conclusive, civil rights leaders and others joined with Democrats who are calling on the White House to release more documents related to Roberts's work as a government lawyer. Senate Democrats were preparing a letter yesterday requesting that the Bush administration provide legal memos Roberts wrote about 20 cases while he was principal deputy solicitor general from 1989 to 1993.
The White House has said its release Tuesday of documents from Roberts's time in the Reagan administration should be sufficient for the Senate to confirm him before the Supreme Court begins its new term Oct. 3.
On Capitol Hill, Roberts visited with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who emerged impressed with the nominee. "I don't see anything that's going to be disturbing" in his record, Nelson told reporters after a 30-minute meeting.
Nelson is one of the "Gang of 14," seven Republicans and seven Democrats who have agreed to oppose efforts by GOP leaders to change filibuster rules. They also signed a pact not to filibuster judicial nominees except in "extraordinary circumstances."
"I have not seen anything that rises to that level," Nelson said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), asked if the documents suggest Roberts is not committed to civil rights, said: "I don't reach that conclusion yet, but it does certainly raise some questions in my mind." He added that the Judiciary Committee must find out whether "Judge Roberts is going to be a part of the sense of progress we have made" on civil rights or whether will he "move us back."
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.