Newly Released Roberts Papers Touch on Rights

The National Archives releases another batch of documents written by Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. The papers, from Roberts' time at the Justice Department during the Reagan administration, include advice to the attorney general on civil rights and other issues.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee is releasing Supreme Court nominee John Roberts' answers to the panel's questionnaire. One point Roberts makes is that he believes in a system of settled law, where other judges have established important legal points. Also today, the National Archives released more papers from John Roberts' time at the Justice Department in the early 1980s. At that time he was a special assistant to the attorney general. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on what those papers contain.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

These documents are from the same source as the 15,000 pages unveiled last week. Today's release covered about 60 documents all written between 1981 and '82. Many of them are memos that Roberts wrote to his boss, Attorney General William French Smith. Throughout the memos Roberts seems to possess an authority beyond his years. He was in his 20s when these papers were written. Attorney General Smith was in his 60s, yet Roberts coached Smith on everything from international diplomacy to interviews with newspaper reporters. The memos show Roberts taking a major role in shaping the public face of the Justice Department, particularly in civil rights issues. Roberts expressed concern about, quote, "the impression created by our critics that the department has turned back the clock on civil rights enforcement."

To counteract that impression, Roberts helped organize a sort of PR campaign with his Justice Department colleagues in August of '82. The team developed a plan outlined in a memo that Roberts wrote to the attorney general. The program involved Roberts drafting op-ed pieces for The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. The DOJ would highlight speeches that the attorney general had made on civil rights accomplishments and in addition, quote, "efforts will be made to have the Republican political apparatus disseminate material on our civil rights record."

While Roberts was defending the DOJ from attacks on the left, he also helped the attorney general assuage concerns on the right. Conservative groups accused the Justice Department of, quote, "not advancing conservative ideals." Roberts advised the attorney general, among other things, to counter that the department, quote, "no longer seeks busing or affirmative action quotas." Roberts seemed acutely aware of the tightrope he was on, needing to respond to accusations from liberals without alienating conservatives and vice versa.

Roberts advised the attorney general in one instance not to respond to conservative attacks directly because, quote, "such an approach would open us up to criticism from the left and even the center." There are few major policy recommendations in these documents. On two instances, though, Roberts recommended limiting the interpretation of Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in federally funded education programs. In 1981 Roberts advised the attorney general to narrow the definition of federal funding so schools that received federal grants for student loans would not be covered under Title IX. The following year Roberts recommended that the attorney general sign a document that removed a section of Title IX prohibiting discrimination based on personal appearance. The education secretary had determined that to be an area more suitable for local than federal regulation, and Roberts called it an eminently sound conclusion.

While these memos do provide more details about the role that Roberts played as a young lawyer at the Justice Department, they are not likely to satisfy some Democrats who have been calling for greater disclosure. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have been pushing the White House to release documents that Roberts wrote later in his career as White House counsel in the Reagan administration and as top deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration. Republicans say attorney-client privilege may prevent them from doing so. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.


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