Supreme Court nominee John Roberts declined Monday to say why he was listed in a leadership directory of the Federalist Society and the White House said he has no recollection of belonging to the conservative group.
The question of Roberts’ membership in the society — an influential organization of conservative lawyers and judges formed in the early 1980s to combat what its members said was growing liberalism on the bench — emerged as a vexing issue at the start of another week of meetings for President Bush’s nominee on Capitol Hill.
Although no Democrats have publicly threatened to filibuster his nomination, they have said they’re concerned that not enough is known about Roberts’ personal and legal views. Questions about where he stands on a range of issues, including abortion, likely will be front-line matters at his confirmation hearings later this summer.
Smiles, but no reply
Roberts, nominated by Bush last week to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was asked by a reporter about the discrepancy during a morning get-acquainted meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
He smiled but didn’t reply.
“I don’t think he wants to take any questions,” Feinstein interjected during the session with photographers and reporters that was part of the meeting in her office with the Supreme Court nominee.
“No, no, no thanks,” Roberts added.
Several news organizations, including The Associated Press, reported immediately after his nomination that Roberts had been a member of the Federalist Society. The AP and others printed corrections after the White House said later that Roberts doesn’t recall ever belonging to the group.
Listed as member of steering committee
The Washington Post reported Monday that it had obtained from a liberal group a 1997-98 Federalist Society leadership directory listing Roberts, then a partner in a private law firm, as being a steering committee member in the group’s Washington chapter.
Roberts has acknowledged participating in Federal Society events and giving speeches for the organization.
But on Monday, presidential press secretary Scott McClellan said, “He doesn’t recall ever paying dues or being a member.”
Roberts was on Capitol Hill on Monday for a fourth day of private meetings with senators who will sit in judgment of his nomination as Democrats began seeking documents he may have authored while working for two Republican presidents.
Roberts worked in the Reagan White House counsel’s office from 1982-1986. He also was principal deputy solicitor general, a political appointment in the administration of the first President Bush.
Some records already are available to the public at the presidential libraries of Ronald Reagan, in Simi Valley, Calif., and George H.W. Bush, in College Station, Texas. Others have yet to be cleared for security and personal privacy by archivists and, under law, by representatives of the former administrations and the current president.
Roberts memos sought
The Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to ask for such material for its hearings. But some Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, have urged the White House to release “in their entirety” any documents written by Roberts.
Citing privacy and precedent, Fred D. Thompson, the former Tennessee senator guiding Roberts through the process on behalf of the White House, said Sunday the Bush administration does not intend to release everything.
Material that would come under attorney-client privilege would be withheld, Thompson said, calling it a principle followed by previous presidents of both political parties.
“We hope we don’t get into a situation where documents are asked for that folks know will not be forthcoming and we get all hung up on that,” Thompson told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Privacy claims cited
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared more open to considering such requests.
“Generally, that’s not something that the administration or any White House would be inclined to share because it is so sensitive and ... does chill communications between line attorneys and their superiors within the Department of Justice,” Gonzales said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“That would be something that we’d have to look at very, very carefully,” he said. “Rather than prejudge the issue, let’s wait for the Judiciary Committee to make its requests, and then we can evaluate the requests and hopefully reach an appropriate accommodation.”
Democratic senators sounded skeptical if not dismissive of the privacy claims.
“It’s a total red herring to say, ’Oh, we can’t show this,”’ Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told ABC’s “This Week.”
Leahy, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said material written in confidence at the Justice Department by other nominees has been provided in the past — for instance by President Ronald Reagan when he nominated William H. Rehnquist for chief justice.