Roberts' Papers Shed Light on Reagan Years

The National Archives releases another 38,000 pages of documents from the files of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. They show Roberts firmly defended the Reagan administration's conservative policies as a White House lawyer.


The National Archives has released another 38,000 pages of documents from the White House files of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Documents show the writings of a young conservative White House aide and future high court nominee. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.


In this batch a larger number of documents were withheld at the request of either Bush or Reagan administration officials. Under the Presidential Records Act, documents can be withheld for reasons of privacy or national security. But among the 1,700 documents withdrawn from public view were files on women's issues, the Whistle-blower Protection Act, files on the Genocide Convention and ironically files on the Freedom of Information Act. And yet the Roberts file continue to reveal. Roberts makes clear repeatedly in the files that he's no fan of the Presidential Records Act, that he thinks it may well be unconstitutional and that it chills the giving of candid advice. But it certainly doesn't seem to inhibit the young White House aide. Indeed in one memo he suggests that archives regulations might be enacted to prevent the release of some documents. In another he opines that it might be well to limit federal judicial terms to 15 years. The framers of the constitution, he notes, adopted life terms when people didn't live as long. `Now,' says Roberts, `setting a term at 15 years would insure that federal judges would quote, "not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence."'

In a variety of contexts Roberts is consistent in opposing legal and legislative attempts to strengthen women's rights. When then Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole forwards to the White House an administration report on what then President Reagan called his 50 state project to aide women, Roberts condemns many of the measures taken by the states and notes that the report should clearly list the measures as an inventory. In another memorandum he opposes any federal constitutional amendment to guarantee equal rights for women. And when a White House aide seeks an award for a colleague who went to law school after the age of 30 and actively encouraged former homemakers to go to law school, Roberts' response was, quote, "some might question whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good." That, of course, was before Roberts married a lawyer who continues to practice even while the couple have two small children.

Yesterday's batch of documents contained some other unexpected revelations. Roberts on record as supporting a national identity card. `We can ill afford to cling to symbolism,' he wrote, `in the face of the real threat to our social fabric posed by uncontrolled immigration.' And then, too, there is Roberts the cautionary, the junior White House aide who continually warns his elders not to go too far in supporting the Nicaraguan Contra fund-raising efforts because of the clear risk of violating federal law.

In several memos, Roberts demonstrates a shrewd, some might even say ruthless political sense. When the president's longtime adviser Michael Deaver left the White House for a lucrative PR practice, Roberts counselled that the president should, quote, "distance himself from Deaver and the ensuing controversy." Said Roberts, quote, "there's no reason for the president to applaud an individual who most regard fairly or unfairly as having little to sell but his personal relationship with the president."

In a different political vain when Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller wrote to the White House on behalf of an constituent who was representing himself in a Social Security claim case before the Supreme Court, Roberts acknowledged to his White House boss that the case was a good one that the administration would likely have to cave on. But he recommended that the White House, quote, "not let Rockefeller in on that fact." As in the previous batches of documents, Roberts gives clear indications of his conservative stand on many controversial legal issues: strongly opposed to affirmative action; strongly supportive of broad presidential powers; and strongly supportive of accommodating religion in public life. One thing he might have changed if he'd had the power of foresight, perhaps he would not have written the scathing evaluation of Senator Arlen Specter's crime package had he known that Specter would one day be chairing his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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