Senate Democrats yesterday dismissed an offer by the White House to hand over up to 75,000 pages of documents pertaining to Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.’s tenure as a lawyer in the Reagan White House.
“This in no way satisfies any potential document request,” said one Democratic aide, generally reflecting the sentiments of Senate Democrats. “The White House has artfully made it look like they are saying yes to our requests, when they are actually saying no.”
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote President Bush late yesterday saying they are “disappointed” in the decision to cut off access to “important and informative documents written” by Judge Roberts. Those documents, they said, may be necessary to “evaluate Judge Robert’s judicial philosophy and legal reasoning.”
The White House has refused to release federal Judge Roberts’ papers from his time as deputy solicitor general in the first Bush White House, saying that doing so would violate attorney-client privilege and set a dangerous precedent for judicial nominees. The Solicitor General’s Office is the federal government’s lawyer in cases that come before the Supreme Court.
“Future solicitor generals might as well put up a ‘need not apply’ sign if people believe that they may someday go through a Senate confirmation process, and it would stifle the candid, honest, and thorough advice that solicitor generals depend on from their attorneys if that privilege was not protected,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.
Mr. McClellan said the documents the White House will provide is more than the Senate needs to do its job.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, responded to the offer by saying the Senate — not the White House — will decide what it needs.
“If the White House announcement is intended to begin a dialogue about documents, I welcome it,” he said. “If it is intended to unilaterally pre-empt a discussion about documents the Senate may need and is entitled to, then this is a regrettable beginning.”
Later in the day, Mr. McClellan responded directly to the complaint by Mr. Leahy.
“We hope Senator Leahy is not demanding to see documents as part of their lines of attack against the president’s nominee — something that they said they were going to engage in even prior to the president making a decision,” Mr. McClellan said.
Republicans yesterday released a letter signed by all seven living solicitors general — both Democrats and Republicans — urging the White House not to comply with such requests.
“Any attempt to intrude into the Office’s highly privileged deliberations would come at the cost of the Solicitor General’s ability to defend vigorously the United States’ litigation interests — a cost that also would be borne by Congress itself,” they wrote in the letter that was drafted in 2002.
The letter was written after Democrats demanded the same records during the confirmation hearings of D.C. lawyer Miguel Estrada, who had been nominated to the federal appeals court. The White House refused to release those papers, and Democrats filibustered Mr. Estrada until he withdrew his nomination more than two years later.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said he’s concerned that Democrats want to “Estradify” Judge Roberts by asking for documents they know they won’t get and then use that as an excuse to stall the confirmation.
“If they’re asking for more documents before they’ve reviewed the 75,000 documents that will be produced, it sounds like this is not in the end going to be a particularly productive debate,” Mr. Cornyn said yesterday.
“If the request is always for more, even after the administration has been enormously forthcoming, then it sounds more like the debate we got into on Miguel Estrada … where we keep moving the goal posts.”
People for the American Way, a liberal group that has worked to defeat some of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees, issued a press statement yesterday asking: “What are they trying to hide?”
“John Roberts was at the epicenter of debates on the most critical civil rights issues of our times,” said Ralph G. Neas, the group’s president. “Those documents could tell the Senate and the American people whether John Roberts will be a Supreme Court justice who will protect our most fundamental rights, or roll them back.
“The White House should release all the documents to the Senate and to the public as appropriate as quickly as possible.”
The White House is working with the National Archives and Reagan library to expedite the process for the release of all documents related to Judge Roberts’ time as a staff member in the White House Counsel’s Office under President Reagan, “a process that typically takes months to go through,” Mr. McClellan said.
The library already has about 10 percent of those documents available publicly, and Mr. McClellan said, “We’re working to make sure that the rest of that information is made available publicly, with the exception of issues where there might be national security concerns or privacy concerns.”
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans continued negotiations over a schedule for holding Judge Roberts’ confirmation hearings.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, hinted yesterday that if an agreement isn’t reached, he would schedule hearings to begin August 29. Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, argued for hearings in September after Congress returns from its August vacation.
“Unless something untoward comes up,” Mr. Reid said, “I see no reason that we couldn’t finish this by the first of October.”
Joseph Curl contributed to this report.