Major liberal groups accused Democratic senators yesterday of showing too little stomach for opposing John G. Roberts Jr.'s Supreme Court nomination, saying newly released documents indicate he is much more conservative than many people first thought.
The response was quick and pointed, as two key senators unleashed their sharpest criticisms yet of Roberts and sought to assure activists that the battle is far from over.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said in a statement: "Those papers that we have received paint a picture of John Roberts as an eager and aggressive advocate of policies that are deeply tinged with the ideology of the far right wing of his party then, and now. In influential White House and Department of Justice positions, John Roberts expressed views that were among the most radical being offered by a cadre intent on reversing decades of policies on civil rights, voting rights, women's rights, privacy, and access to justice."
Leahy, who previously treaded more softly on the Roberts matter, said the White House's refusal to release other documents being sought leaves Roberts "with a heavier burden to carry during his upcoming hearings."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee's senior member, also took his criticisms of Roberts to new heights yesterday in a letter to colleagues.
In a further bid to dispel an air of inevitability that liberals think too many Democrats have embraced, several organizations told allies that they will call for Roberts's rejection this month rather than wait for the Senate hearings to start on Sept. 6, as some members of the anti-Roberts coalition have urged.
The senators and liberal groups were reacting in part to a Washington Post article noting that many Democratic lawmakers have expressed little interest in mounting a strong fight against Roberts, barring unexpected disclosures. The senators' tepid stance has frustrated the organizations, which are important to the party, because they feel the information being gleaned from thousands of documents is starting to portray the nominee as someone considerably more conservative than the justice he would replace, Sandra Day O'Connor.
"What we've seen is breathtaking in his approach to weakening the enforcement of civil rights laws," said Nancy M. Zirkin of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "A picture is emerging that Roberts was there every step of the way taking the far right position. . . . He is no Sandra Day O'Connor."
The day's events revealed the tensions on the Democratic side as senators and liberal interest groups make different strategic calculations on how to position themselves for next month's nomination showdown. The interest groups want senators to be more aggressive. Meanwhile, some senators, according to aides, blame the groups for not doing more to build public opposition and to create the political climate in which it would be easier to speak out against Roberts without looking extreme. Liberal leaders say that they simply were being responsible and prudent, and that now their patience is paying off.
Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, said Democrats who support Roberts could face a voter backlash, particularly if he turns out to be as conservative as the groups contend. "History shows us that voters turned on Alan Dixon for his vote on Clarence Thomas and voters gave Arlen Specter the toughest reelection of his life," Aron said, referring to the former Democratic senator from Illinois and the current Republican senator from Pennsylvania. If grass-roots voters "are where we expect they'll be around the time of the vote [on Roberts], they'll remember long and hard."
Ralph G. Neas, head of the liberal People for the American Way, noted that "there have been almost daily revelations from the Reagan Presidential Library" indicating that, as a young White House lawyer, Roberts "was a charter member of the Reagan-Bush legal policy team that had attempted to dismantle the civil rights remedies" embraced by previous GOP administrations. He added: "I believe a significant number of progressive organizations will soon be coming out against the Roberts nomination."
Neas declined to say whether his group will be among them. But several liberal activists said they have been told that People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other major groups plan, before Labor Day, to urge Roberts's rejection. These groups have expressed concerns about Roberts since President Bush nominated him on July 19, but they have stopped short of calling for rejection.
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.