In a throwback to the politics of the 1980s, the feminist movement and its favored policies and legal arguments of a generation ago have emerged as flash points in the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court.
More than a dozen conservative activists and commentators, in a makeshift group called Women for Roberts, gathered yesterday at the National Press Club, alleging that "feminists on the left" have distorted the nominee's quarter-century-long paper trail to cast him as hostile to equality for women.
"He doesn't have a sexist bone in his body," declared Linda Chavez, who worked with Roberts in the Reagan administration.
On the same floor at the same time, the liberal People for the American Way formally announced its opposition to Roberts, alleging that the Bush nominee is intolerably hostile to civil rights, privacy and women's rights.
"When issues of justice and equality came before him, John Roberts devoted himself to finding problems with solutions, not finding solutions to problems," said Ralph G. Neas, president of the group, which spearheaded the campaign to defeat court nominee Robert H. Bork in 1987. Neas said Roberts might appear affable and measured but suggested that the nominee's views reveal a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
The critics have seized on comments that Roberts, now 50, made while working as a young lawyer in the Reagan White House. Roberts wrote then on what he called "perceived problems" of discrimination against women, and he made clear his opposition to many of the remedies being pursued at the state and federal levels. One proposal then pushed by liberals -- "comparable worth" laws that would impose pay formulas on employers to try to close a gap between men's and women's wages -- was dismissed by Roberts as "staggeringly pernicious" and "anti-capitalist."
The Women for Roberts event -- organized this week by a conservative public relations firm that was also a consultant to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that campaigned last year against Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry -- was a response to the criticism that greeted the disclosure of Roberts's comments.
"To say that Roberts is hostile to these women because he opposed these radical initiatives simply defies common sense," Jennifer Braceras of the Independent Women's Forum said in a statement released at the news conference.
Wendy E. Long of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network said Roberts would make a "justice of incomparable worth."
While the Roberts papers have prompted an excursion into the past, both sides say it is more contemporary debates, including over abortion rights and executive branch power, that will dominate the Senate hearings that begin Sept. 6.
The battle took a personal edge yesterday, with Connie Mackey of the conservative Family Research Council challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to assume a more balanced approach than liberal activists are advocating. "Senator Feinstein, woman to woman, I ask you to employ the same courtesy for Judge Roberts's hearing and confirmation" afforded Sandra Day O'Connor, who was confirmed 96 to 3, Mackey said.
Feinstein, the lone female member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowed yesterday to aggressively press Roberts on his views on abortion and many other issues, provoking the swift response from Mackey.
"As the only woman on the committee, I have an additional role to play in representing the views and concerns of 145 million American women during this hearing process," Feinstein said in speech Wednesday in Los Angeles. "It would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone to the Supreme Court whom I know would overturn Roe v. Wade and return our country to the days of the 1950s." Roberts will not discuss his position on abortion law in the hearings, White House officials said.
Addressing one nomination issue that has bubbled in recent days, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) wrote to Roberts yesterday, asking why he did not recuse himself from a terrorism case involving the Bush administration that he was hearing at the same time he was interviewing with White House officials for the nomination. Legal ethicists are divided over whether Roberts should have recused himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is looking into the case, too. In a letter sent to Specter this week, Ronald D. Rotunda, a law professor at George Mason University, said he was asked by the chairman about the propriety of Roberts's involvement in the terrorism case and found that he did nothing improper, according to a copy of the letter.
In a sign of Republican confidence, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business organization, endorsed Roberts's nomination Wednesday -- but said it saw no need to aggressively campaign on his behalf. "We haven't seen any evidence of any real problem with the nomination process," said Stanton D. Anderson, the group's chief legal officer. "We remain positive that the process will take a month or so, and it will have a positive result."
The Chamber said it backed Roberts because of his legal background, including advocacy for businesses during his private practice. "He is highly regarded and well respected by the legal and business communities," said the group's president, Thomas J. Donohue.
The National Association of Manufacturers also endorsed Roberts and promised a more active lobbying campaign than the Chamber. The group's president, John Engler, said that it would ask its affiliates and members to push senators to confirm Roberts, concentrating on lawmakers whose votes are up for grabs. Like the Chamber, the manufacturers group will not use its own funds to buy advertising, Engler said. "We don't have lavish accounts," he explained.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.