Roberts' Papers Reflect His Working Style

More documents written early in his career by Supreme Court nominee John Roberts are released. Some of the memos to his superiors at the White House address serious issues of the day, and some strike amusing notes about lighter topics.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Another 5,000 pages of papers were released today from Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. He compiled them during the early and mid-1980s when he served in the Reagan White House. NPR's Nina Totenberg has been plowing through the documents, and she's with us now.

Nina, this is the fourth document dump. So what new have we learned?

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Well, actually I had a lot of help today from our own Ari Shapiro, since nobody can read 5,000 pages by herself. Substantively, there are only a few things that we could find deserving of mention. On school prayer, for instance, we see Roberts once again sounding the trumpet for a constitutional view that lost inside the conservative Reagan administration. And that's the notion that Congress has the power to restrict the constitutional power of the courts, to strip the courts, for example, of the power to rule on certain subjects, like abortion, school busing or prayer.

In a May 1985 memo, Roberts candidly admits that he's repeatedly lost this battle internally, but he suggests that a new regime at the Justice Department might want to revisit the issue. It didn't, even after the Supreme Court a month later struck down an Alabama statute calling for a moment of silence or silent prayer. Though Roberts clearly disapproved of this decision, he did note that the idiosyncrasies of the Alabama law were what doomed it, not necessarily the notion of a moment of silence.

NORRIS: Now I understand that, in one of these memos, Roberts let go quite a rant about the concept of comparable worth.

TOTENBERG: Well, just to remind us what comparable worth was all about, in the early 1980s, women's rights advocates were proposing a notion under the civil rights statute that said if truck drivers and laundry workers, for example, have to have the same level of skills and the same education, they should be paid the same within a company. Three Republican women members of Congress wrote to the White House asking that the administration take no position on this question when it reached the Supreme Court. Roberts recommended the contrary, saying, quote, "I honestly find it troubling that three Republican representatives are so quick to embrace such a radical redistributive concept. Their slogan might as well be `from each according to his ability to each according to her gender.'"

NORRIS: Nina, let's move on to an issue involving arts and culture, I guess, if you could call it that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOTENBERG: In September of 1984, Michael Jackson--yes, that Michael Jackson--his personal manager invited the president to attend one of the rock star's concerts in Washington. And some White House staff member recommended inviting Jackson to the White House for a private tour and a reception, to which Roberts responded, `I find the obsequious attitude of some members of the White House staff towards Mr. Jackson's attendance and the fawning posture they would have the president of the United States adopt more than a little embarrassing. Anyway,' says Roberts, `that morning's Washington Post has reported that, quote, "Some youngsters are turning away from Mr. Jackson in favor of a newcomer who goes by the name Prince."'

NORRIS: Mr. Jackson. So I guess not all memos are momentous.

TOTENBERG: Yes. Well, a huge amount of this stuff is, to put it politely, junk, Michele. For example, a woman wants to create a line of dishware featuring a Reagan quote. `No,' says Roberts. `It would violate established policy against commercial endorsements.' And he adds, given this particular china pattern would, quote, "call into serious question the president's taste in dinner servers."

NORRIS: Well, just quickly, is there any indication of his views on people like us pouring over all these documents?

TOTENBERG: Oh, yes. After the Reagan administration turned over to the Senate Judiciary Committee Justice Department memoranda written by a nominee for associate attorney general, Roberts was aghast, recommending that in the future no such turnovers take place. These, of course, are precisely the kinds of documents that the Bush administration is now refusing to turn over on Roberts. But as the young Mr. Roberts acknowledged back in 1984, the Presidential Records Act does not protect White House documents in a similar fashion, and the effect of the Presidential Records Act, he said, is `pernicious,' suggesting that perhaps it's unconstitutional.

NORRIS: Thank you, Nina.

NPR's Nina Totenberg.

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