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Democrats to target Roberts' views on race, gender equality

WASHINGTON—Leading Democrats and key interest groups intend to build a case against John G. Roberts' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by highlighting his past stands on civil rights and women's issues and downplaying more divisive topics such as abortion and school prayer.

When confirmation hearings begin Sept. 6, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee will concentrate on Roberts' writings that shed light on his views of affirmative action, voting rights, pay equity and discrimination, aides and activists said.

That focus has evolved over the past several weeks, even though the most vocal opposition to Roberts has come from supporters of abortion rights. Senate Democratic aides and strategists said Democrats had more to gain by portraying Roberts as outside the mainstream on broad questions of fairness than on a polarizing subject such as abortion. Even if they can't defeat Roberts, they hope to define his conservative values in ways that will hurt Republicans and help Democrats in the 2006 congressional elections.

"This is a debate about two completely different judicial philosophies," said Ralph Neas, the president of People for the American Way, a liberal group. "It's not about a litmus test issue. It's not about one or two issues. It's about literally dozens of issues that are part of a judicial philosophy."

The decision also takes into account the politics of the Supreme Court. In 2003 the court split 5-4 in upholding race preferences in admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, with departing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor casting the crucial swing vote. Roberts, who equated affirmative action to racial quotas as a Reagan administration lawyer, could alter that balance.

On abortion, however, the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, which established a woman's right to abortion, would have majority support in the court even after O'Connor's departure.

Politically, Democrats said, issues such as civil rights and gender equality are likely to resonate broadly and appeal to more Democratic constituencies, such as African-American voters and women. President Bush won 48 percent of female voters last year, improving his share by 5 points over 2000. Though his gains with blacks were more modest, Republican National Committee Chairman Mark Mehlman has made a point of reaching out to African-Americans this year.

"Given the revelations that are coming out about Roberts from these documents, it does beg the question as to whether the White House is sincere in its efforts to reach out to minorities and other groups," said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats.

In an orchestrated move, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Democratic Chairman Howard Dean and several liberal interest groups called Friday for the White House to release documents from Roberts' tenure as deputy solicitor general during the presidency of President Bush's father. The White House already has released thousands of pages of documents from Roberts' service as a lawyer in the Reagan White House and Justice Department.

White House spokesman Steve Schmidt said documents from Roberts' tenure as deputy solicitor general must remain privileged or "it shatters the ability for government lawyers to have candid conversations."

Specifically, Democrats and activists want memos that shed light on Roberts' views during deliberations on 16 cases, including ones dealing with school desegregation, voting rights, affirmative action, sex discrimination and environmental regulation.

"The whole idea of the internal memoranda is to try to get a more unvarnished view of what Roberts said," said Elliot Mincberg, the vice president and legal director of People for the American Way.

Critics cite Roberts' Reagan-era writings that encourage a narrow interpretation on enforcing racial and sexual anti-discrimination laws. Roberts also was directly involved in the Reagan administration's opposition to expanding the Voting Rights Act.

The legislation would have required that discrimination in elections be deemed a violation of the act, even if it wasn't intentional. Roberts, in a memo, argued that the change could lead to a "quota system."

"Just as we oppose quotas in employment and education, so too we oppose them in elections," he wrote.

In documents released Thursday, Roberts strongly opposed gender-equity laws. In a Jan. 17, 1983, memo, he said such laws were "highly objectionable." A California law that set "comparable-worth" pay scales, he wrote, was "staggeringly pernicious" and "anti-capitalist."

Stuart Rothenberg, the publisher of a Washington political newsletter, said Democrats had chosen issues that might have "the best chance to raise doubts or concerns about Roberts' record, his reasoning, his views."

"It's possible that Democrats have decided that for the last few years they've been losing the cultural fight," he said. "Maybe they're looking for a little different avenue, and race or gender equality ... are not like guns and abortion. You talk about abortion now and I think three-quarters of the country goes `Oh, there we go again.'"

Some senators are urging Democratic leaders to tread carefully.

"There is always a balance between trying to please some of the special-interest groups and constituency groups in Washington and not engaging in that," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said in an interview. "If you don't, there are questions about their morale and their support. Leadership will require that we do the right thing, not just simply what constituents want, unless you think they're right."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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