Image: Harry Reid
Evan Vucci  /  AP
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, announced during a news conference on Tuesday he will vote against chief justice nominee John Roberts.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/20/2005 6:27:42 PM ET 2005-09-20T22:27:42

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid announced his opposition to chief justice nominee John Roberts on Tuesday, voicing doubts about Roberts’ commitment to civil rights and accusing the Bush administration of stonewalling requests for documents that might shed light on his views.

“I have reluctantly concluded that this nominee has not satisfied the high burden that would justify my voting for his confirmation based on the current record,” the Nevada Democrat said on the Senate floor.

“The question is close, and the arguments against him do not warrant extraordinary procedural tactics to block the nomination,” Reid said.

Roberts seems almost certain to win Senate confirmation next week to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist and become the nation’s 17th chief justice, with some veteran Senate handicappers predicting 65 votes or more for the nominee.

There are 55 Republicans in the senate, 44 Democrats and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats.

What would trigger a filibuster
In a significant development, Reid set forth some of the conditions that would trigger a Democratic attempt at a filibuster to block President Bush’s nominee to fill the vacancy created by the impending retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Reid said it would be “a real poke in the eye with a sharp stick if they give us (any of) the 10 (judicial nominees) we turned down” by filibusters in 2003 and 2004.

Those 10 include appeals court judges Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown, who are said to be in contention for the O’Connor vacancy.

But Reid did not explicitly rule out the Democrats’ filibustering — or at least trying to filibuster — a nominee who was not one of those 10.

On May 23, seven Democratic senators signed a bipartisan accord with seven GOP senators in which they pledged to not support a filibuster of a nominee to the high court unless there were undefined “extraordinary circumstances” that made it impossible to support the nominee.

Some of those who signed the letter said they took “extraordinary circumstances” to include scandal, criminality or utter lack of professional credentials. But there’s no consensus among the signatories of the letter as to what that phrase means.

Reid may need to ‘go to the well’
Reid also hinted to reporters he didn't make the Roberts vote a test of party-line loyalty because he may need to "go to the well" to ask for party unity on the next Supreme Court nominee.

"You can only go to the well so many times. This (Roberts vote) isn’t a time I wanted to do that,” he told reporters in his office.

Reid called Roberts “a very smart man, but through all of this I came to the realization I’m not too sure his heart is as big as his head.” He criticized Roberts for using the phrase “illegal amigos” in a memo he wrote in the 1980s and for not apologizing for the use of that phrase.

The Democratic leader warned Bush that his nominee for the vacancy created by O’Connor’s impending retirement would face a tough battle from Democrats.

The president “should understand that there is no vacancy on the court. This court could go for the next year or even thereafter as it is now constituted.” O’Connor made her retirement contingent on the confirmation of her successor.

Reid indicated he’d seek to delay any Senate debate on O’Connor’s successor. “I just don’t see any rush” on the next nominee; instead, he’d prefer the Senate spend its time working on legislation.

Asked about the fact that Bush appears on the brink of a historic victory at a time when polling data indicate he’s at a low ebb of popularity during his presidency, Reid cracked, “It goes without saying he needs some kind of a victory.”

Other Democrats have signaled their intentions to support Roberts, while some, such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., remain publicly silent about how they will vote.

“I’ve not seen anything that would cause me to vote against” Roberts, said Sen. Ben Nelson, who represents Republican Nebraska and often crosses party lines to support Bush’s legislative proposals.

“I’m inclined to vote for Roberts unless something else comes up,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. “It’s a close call.”

Bob Brigham, a Democratic blogger who writes for Swingstateproject.com, said that if Roberts is confirmed as chief justice, he “is going to have a chance to hand down some serious decisions before the 2008 presidential race heats up. And every bad decision he makes will be blamed on any Democratic senator who votes for him. Democratic senators will be held accountable individually for the bad decisions he makes between now and 2008.”

Reid's decision to oppose Roberts pleased women’s groups and civil rights organizations that had feared he would support Roberts.

“This is a very close question for me. But I must resolve my doubts in favor of the American people whose rights would be in jeopardy if John Roberts turned out to be the wrong person for the job,” he said.

Delayed civil rights protections?
Referring to publicly released memos that date to Roberts’ tenure as a Reagan administration lawyer, Reid said they showed the young attorney “played a significant role in shaping and advancing the Republican agenda to roll back civil rights protections.”

“No one suggests that John Roberts was motivated by bigotry or animosity toward minorities or women,” Reid added. “But these memos lead one to question whether he truly appreciated the history of the civil rights struggle. He wrote about discrimination as an abstract concept, not as a flesh and blood reality for countless of his fellow citizens.”

Reid also said Roberts followed a “disingenuous strategy” at last week’s confirmation hearings of suggesting that the views in the memos were not his own.

Democrats have tried without success to persuade the administration to release documents from Roberts’ tenure as principal deputy solicitor general, a senior Justice Department job he held in the administration of the first President Bush. White House claims to shield the documents are “utterly unpersuasive,” Reid said, adding that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had refused to meet with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to discuss the papers.

Reid: Senate treated with ‘disrespect’
“The failure of the White House to produce relevant documents is reason enough for any senator to oppose this nomination. The administration cannot treat the Senate with such disrespect without some consequences,” Reid said.

Dana Perino, White House deputy press secretary, said in response to Reid’s remarks that Roberts was “clearly qualified in terms of intellect, ethics and temperament, and it would be unfortunate if some in the Senate use his confirmation to seek to change the historic approach to Supreme Court confirmations.”

“In confirming recent nominees like Ginsburg, Breyer and Scalia, senators based their decisions on the qualifications of the nominee, not on whether or not the person doing the nominating was in their same party. The public does not want to see the Supreme Court become an extension of partisan politics,” Perino said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed on a vote of 96-3 in 1993, the 1994 vote on Stephen Breyer was 87-9 and Antonin Scalia was confirmed 98-0 in 1987.

The Associated Press contributed to thsi report.

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