Roberts’ Record on Civil Rights Enters Battle Over Supreme Court Nomination

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In the ongoing controversy over the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, questions are being raised over Roberts’ role in the civil rights debates of the 1980s. During his tenure as Deputy Assistant General under Reagan, Roberts advocated a narrow interpretation of a variety of civil rights laws, and presented a defense of congressional efforts to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over busing, abortion and school prayer cases. We speak with Ralph Neas of People for the American Way and Reverend Jesse Jackson. [includes rush transcript]

The battle over Supreme Court nominee John Roberts is heating up. In Washington, questions are being raised over Roberts’ role in the civil rights debates of the 1980s. On Tuesday, the White House released 15,000 pages of documents stemming from Roberts service as an attorney for the Reagan administration. The documents show that Roberts advocated a narrow interpretation of a variety of civil rights laws, and presented a defense of congressional efforts to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over busing, abortion and school prayer cases.

Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy said Thursday the documents made public so far indicate Roberts holds a “rather cramped view of the Voting Rights Act.” Aides to Kennedy distributed materials that Roberts drafted while at the Justice Department and White House counsel’s office during the Reagan administration. The documents show Roberts expressing criticism of an extension of the voting rights act, support for a court ruling narrowing the civil rights requirements on colleges, and doubts about a law to combat discrimination in housing.

Civil rights leaders are joining with Democrats who are calling on the White House to release more documents related to Roberts’s work as a government lawyer. The White House said they will refuse to release any of the documents from Roberts’ tenure as deputy solicitor general under the first President Bush, describing the content of the papers as confidential legal advice.

The White House and Senate Republicans are demanding a final confirmation vote before the Supreme Court begins its new term on October 3rd.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Ralph Neas, President of People for the American Way. He joins us from Washington, D.C. We’re also joined on the telephone by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow Push Coalition. Ralph Neas, we’ll begin with you. Can you talk about what you understand now to be the record of Judge Roberts?

RALPH NEAS: Good morning. From 1981 to 1993, the Reagan and Bush administrations did everything possible to turn back the clock on civil rights protections for women, for minorities, for people with disabilities and older Americans. It looks more and more with every passing day and with every passing revelation that John Roberts was at the epicenter of all of these efforts during the 1980s and early 1990s. The American people have a right to know precisely what his role was.

According to the Washington Post in articles that they have written and others have written, it appears that he is even to the right of Ted Olson, one of the most archconservative lawyers in the country and in the Reagan-Bush administrations. If this is true, I think that the composite picture that the White House tried to create last week, which is somehow that this guy is an above-the-fray lawyer representing truly and clearly his clients, is not exactly what this man really is. This is someone who went and helped Jeb Bush in December and November of 2000. This is someone who is a leader in the Federalist Society. This is someone who looks like he was a partner with William Bradford Reynolds and all those radical right activists in the Reagan and Bush years.

This is troubling. This is not someone who’s in the mode of a Sandra Day O’Connor. This is looking more and more like someone who’s in the mode of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The American people have a right to have all of these documents. The Senate needs all of these documents to exercise responsibly its advice and consent responsibilities, but it looks like the Bush administration is going to stonewall.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined also by Reverend Jesse Jackson on the phone from Washington. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Reverend.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Good morning. Good to share with you today.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us your immediate reaction to some of the documents that have come out already on the nomination of Judge Roberts?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, first of all, he is touted as being a very brilliant man with a good mind, yet he forgot he was a member of the steering committee of the Federalist Society. That raises a question not of intelligence, but integrity. He was counseling Reagan on how to maneuver not supporting Mrs. King on supporting the King Center in Atlanta Georgia. His position on challenging women’s right to self-determination has been unconstitutional, is a very serious threat to the majority of our society. And now the idea of not supporting Voting Rights extension, which today President Bush has not put forth a Voting Rights extension. That’s why we’re going to have a major march in Atlanta, Georgia, August 6 on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, because so far this administration will not commit to voter opposition nor voter enforcement. So, if he has that view of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and Section 5 of Voting Rights Act, he has a very, very serious case of a velvet glove over his very right wing iron fist.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ralph Neas, also the documents apparently indicate that in the 1982 Supreme Court decision that overturned the State of Texas law that denied children who were in the state illegally, illegal immigrant children, from going to public schools, the Supreme Court overturned that, and apparently Judge Roberts criticized the Justice Department for failing to properly defend the State of Texas. Can you talk about that?

RALPH NEAS: Certainly an unconscionable decision. We are working with the Latino organizations across the country, as well as other civil rights organizations, and I know Jesse feels very strongly about this issue. It’s almost beyond comprehension that he could take such a position, just as it’s almost beyond comprehension that someone who said just after being nominated, that “I get a lump in my throat as I walk up the steps to the Supreme Court.” This same person goes to the right of Ted Olson and says that Congress has the right under the Constitution to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over civil rights issues, over school prayer and over abortion rights. This man, if these reports are true, has little respect for the rule of law, little respect for the Congress, and little respect for the Supreme Court.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, one, also, the right wing is against the Supreme Court until they take it over. They are for the Supreme Court if it rules on the 18th of December, and the blacks have no right to [inaudible]. They are for it if it supports 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson. They are against it if it supports the Supreme Court decision — I mean, they believe in states’ rights until it’s time to intervene in Florida, of which Roberts was a part in 2000. So, they — it’s really a kind of power grab and they have crafted him out as this clean slate, clean cut guy with no agenda. He is at least as dangerous as Bork was.

AMY GOODMAN: Looking at an A.P. piece, you know, these articles are coming out as these thousands of documents have been released, so the White House says they’re not going to release any when he was — any more under Kenneth Starr, when he was Deputy Solicitor General in the first Bush administration. But it says — and this refers to Reverend Jesse Jackson talking about the 1965 Voting Rights Act, “Congress was considering an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act against the backdrop of the Supreme Court ruling that held proof of intent was needed to demonstrate someone’s rights had been violated.” Following up on Juan’s point, “House democrats sought legislation to change so election results would be sufficient. In a draft opinion article he sent to a county commissioner in San Antonio, Roberts wrote, 'The proposal would not simply extend the existing and effective Voting Rights Act, but would dramatically change it. It's not broken, so there’s no need to fix it.’” In other documents, Roberts, then working in the White House, wrote that legislation designed to overturn a different Supreme Court ruling would radically expand the civil rights laws to areas never before considered covered. He recommended against it. In a third, he wrote the administration could go slowly on housing legislation without fearing political damage. Ralph Neas, first your response.

RALPH NEAS: Number one, with respect to his tenure in the Solicitor General’s office as the top political deputy, there are many precedents that support giving up such documents. Bork had to give up his documents when he was up in 1987 for the Supreme Court. Rehnquist had to give up documents when he was up for Chief Justice in 1986. There are many, many democratic and republican precedents. With respect to the Voting Rights Act, Jesse Jackson and I worked together many times, but especially in 1981 and 1982. The House of Representatives by a vote of 389-24 rejected the opinions of John Roberts; the House by — the Senate by a vote of 85-8.

By the way, in 1985, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was controlled by the Republicans, rejected the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds to be Associate Attorney General, because he was defying the civil rights laws of the country as passed by Congress and interpreted by the Supreme Court. John Roberts appears to have been the pardoner of William Bradford Reynolds during this time. I think the Senate should go back to those hearings in 1985, and perhaps we have an analogy here as to how the Senate should treat the confirmation of John Roberts to a much, much higher post, Supreme Court of the United States.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Let me hasten say that while they decry activists on the court, we who feel the pain and threat of this, must ourselves become reactivated. And August 6 is the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and speaking of activism, when the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Bush, and Congressman Jackson asked him would he extend the Voting Rights Act with enforcement provisions, he said I don’t support this estatehood. That’s not the question. Do you support the 1965 Voting Rights Act with provisions of enforcement? He said, 'I don't know what you are talking about. When it gets to my desk, I will address it,’ which is the Roberts position of not supporting it in the first place. It is in light of that, I must say quickly, in Georgia, they’ve reduced voting access I.D. from 18 down to five. You can only use state-issued I.D. So if you vote — or if you are from Georgia Tech, you can use your I.D. to register. But if you are from Emory or Moorhouse you cannot. They’re private schools. My point is this kind of voter restriction, worker suppressing ideology is what Roberts typifies. That’s why on March 6, we will have a major march in Atlanta, Georgia, because we, the people, must take our case back to the street. We can’t just analyze. We must also act.

AMY GOODMAN: This is August 6?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: August the 6th, which is a Saturday. We’ll gather at 8:00 a.m. in Atlanta, Georgia. And there will be a major march. I might add that Stevie Wonder and Willie Nelson and Roberta Flack and Darius Brooks, but the entire Congressional Black Caucus and Latino Caucus and LULAC and MALDEF and Council of LaRaza, and NAA, and Urban League and SCLC. Nancy Pelosi will be there. The AFL-CIO, both John Sweeney and Andy Stern will be there, because Sweeney now says that voter rights denial is — and worker suppression is a big deal. We cannot take it lightly nor academically. So I want those who hear today may hit us on our website at or call on our Atlanta offices [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Jackson, we’re going to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to go to break right now, but I did want to ask Ralph Neas a last question, which is: How are you organizing? They’re talk about the hearing being a month after the march that Reverend Jackson is talking about, the hearing, the nomination hearing being September 6. How are you organizing at People for the American Way?

RALPH NEAS: Right now, we are trying to make sure those hearings are at a time when they’re — after they’re sufficient, ample opportunity for the Senate Judiciary Committee members to go through these documents. The administration is slow walking if not stonewalling right now. So, it looks like the hearings will be first week of September. But there may be more time required. With respect to People For, we have contacted all of our 750,000 members and activists across the country. We’re doing internet organizing, where our — in coalition in 20 states, the key 20 states, with moderate and conservative Republicans and Democrats. We’re doing pay TV, radio and print media starting this weekend. We’re working very closely with 125 organizations nationally and many more locally and regionally, asking the senators not to make a commitment until after the hearings. Make sure all of the documents are there for the American people, and make sure that the senators take their advise and could be sent responsibilities seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Neas of People for the American Way we want to thank you very much. And we’re going to ask Reverend Jackson to stay on to talk for a moment about the Democratic Leadership Council. They just had a major meeting this past weekend.

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