Sunday, July 31, 2005

Democrats challenge White House on Roberts documents


Democrats challenge White House on Roberts documents

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats challenged the White House on Friday to provide documents stemming from U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts' work as an attorney in the first Bush administration and lawmakers announced his confirmation hearings would begin on Sept. 6.

The White House had declared the documents the Democrats want off-limits, but Democratic lawmakers said the Senate Judiciary Committee would need them to scrutinize Roberts properly.

"We would appreciate your prompt attention to this request so that the committee may have adequate time to review the requested documents," eight Democrats on the panel wrote in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The White House had no immediate comment, though Senate Republicans accused Democrats of a fishing expedition.

"We expect this from Democrats," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and Judiciary Committee member. "The White House has made clear the answer: No."

A few hours later, Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's top Democrat, announced confirmation hearings would begin on Sept. 6, after Congress returns from a month-long recess, with a committee vote anticipated by Sept. 15.

Democrats and Republicans had been trying to reach an agreement on those hearings since President Bush last week nominated Roberts, a 50-year-old conservative, to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Bush has said he wants a Senate confirmation vote before the Supreme Court begins its new term on Oct. 3. Democrats argue they need enough time to adequately review Roberts, who has spent the past two years as a federal appeals court judge.

Under the agreement, Democrats waived some of their rights to delay consideration of Roberts, but refused to guarantee a committee vote by mid-September, which had been a key bone of contention in at times roller-coaster talks.

"The Constitution gives us the duty to make this decision as correctly as we can, not to do it as fast as we can," Leahy said.


Democrats, in their letter to Gonzales, requested documents dealing with 16 cases that Roberts was involved in while deputy solicitor general in the early 1990s.

They touch on a host of divisive issues including school desegregation, the death penalty, civil rights and a case in which Roberts echoed the administration position that the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion should be overturned.

The White House riled Senate Democrats on Tuesday when it began releasing the first of up to 65,000 pages of documents from Roberts' work in the Reagan administration, but said it would refuse to release papers from his time as deputy solicitor general.

The White House cited a letter in 2002 by seven former solicitors general declaring the internal memos are protected by attorney-client privilege.

Senate Democrats say there is plenty of precedent of sensitive materials from other Supreme Court nominees being turned over to the committee.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, first disclosed plans to request the documents on Thursday as he questioned Roberts' commitment to civil rights laws.

Kennedy did so in releasing documents from Roberts' work in the Reagan administration, which had a number of clashes with civil rights groups.

No Senate Democrat has announced plans to oppose Roberts, and many have spoken glowingly of him. But virtually all say they will withhold final judgment until confirmation hearings. (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan)