WASHINGTON—As a brash young lawyer in the Reagan White House, Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. scoffed at state efforts to pass gender-discrimination laws, advised caution in aiding private support for Contra rebels in Nicaragua and called an expansive crime bill backed by Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter "the epitome of the `throw money at the problem' approach."
In more than 38,000 pages of documents released Thursday, Roberts weighs in on some of the great controversies of the Reagan era and reveals a few personality quirks along the way.
The documents, housed at the Reagan Presidential Library in California and made available Thursday in Washington, shed little new light on Roberts' broadly conservative views, but they add detail. In fact, Roberts' rapt attention to detail—he even corrects the grammar in other people's memos—is evident throughout, as is his keen sense of humor occasionally.
The memos almost certainly will inspire more questions from Senate Democrats, who will be trying to figure out how accurately the 20-year-old documents reflect Roberts' views now and to what extent they predict how he might approach similar issues on the high court.
Of all the new documents, Roberts expresses his strongest—and most potentially controversial—opinion in a Jan. 17, 1983, memo to his boss, White House Counsel Fred Fielding, about efforts by states to pass gender-equity laws.
Roberts wrote that several of the efforts were "highly objectionable." He also said a California law that required layoff programs to reflect affirmative-action priorities was at odds with the administration's stance. He described another California law as "staggeringly pernicious" because it codified the "anti-capitalist notion of `comparable worth' pay scales."
Roberts didn't weigh in directly on South Africa sanctions, but he did use the debate over U.S. policy on that nation's system of racial segregation, or "apartheid," to reinforce his dislike for quotas.
On a copy of a proposed executive order banning certain types of economic support for the white-minority South African government, Roberts wrote "minority set-aside?" next to a passage that encouraged U.S. government agencies to pursue business with South African companies that had at least 50 percent black ownership. The passage survived without change.
In the mid-1980s, as the Reagan administration grappled with a civil war in Nicaragua and congressional resistance to direct U.S. intervention, Roberts urged caution in administration efforts to encourage private support for the "Contra" rebels seeking to topple the leftist regime.
In 1985 he initially tried to end White House involvement in an event designed to encourage donations to the Nicaraguan Refugee Fund because it would suggest a White House affiliation with private fund raising. He relented after the fund-raising portion of the event was moved out of the White House.
In 1986, he tempered commendation letters for Contra support groups that he thought linked Reagan too closely to the groups.
He also warned White House speechwriters that Reagan mustn't urge private citizens to send money to "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua because that would break the law. More gung-ho attitudes among aides on Reagan's National Security Council later led to such lawbreaking and the "Iran-Contra" scandal that almost got Reagan impeached in 1987.
Roberts thought little of a 1983 crime package proposed by Specter, who will preside over Roberts' confirmation hearings next month as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure would have cost $8 billion over nearly a decade to build prisons and beef up federal agencies and give another $6 billion to states.
Roberts scorned it as "the epitome of the `throw money at the problem' approach" and predicted that Congress would dismiss it. In fact, Congress passed a major crime bill in 1984.
Roberts weighed in on AIDS in 1985, when the disease was still mysterious. He advised Reagan against saying it couldn't be transmitted through casual contact, because scientists weren't yet completely sure of that.
"I would not like to see the President reassuring the public on this point, only to find out he was wrong later," Roberts wrote.
In other memos, Roberts revealed a penchant for protecting Reagan's image—whether by promoting what he considered the president's strong record on women's issues and civil rights, or—on a lighter note—saving him from an association with weird pop stars.
When a presidential award was proposed for singer Michael Jackson to honor his work to discourage teenage drunk driving, Roberts said it was a "poor idea."
"A presidential award to Jackson would be perceived as a shallow effort by the president to exploit the constant publicity surrounding Jackson. The whole episode would, in my view, be demeaning to the president."
Jackson got the award anyway.
Roberts' sense of humor emerges in flashes.
Responding to a proposal to lighten the Supreme Court's workload, Roberts wrote:
"While some of the tales of woe emanating from the Court are enough to bring tears to the eyes, it is true that only Supreme Court Justices and schoolchildren are expected to and do take the entire summer off."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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