Bush administration withholds documents written by Roberts

Attorney-client privilege called reason for secrecy

July 25, 2005|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Defying Senate Democrats, the Bush administration will withhold some documents written by Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. while he worked for Republican administrations, advisers to the White House said yesterday.

The documents, written while Roberts worked in President Ronald Reagan's White House and the first President George Bush's Justice Department, will be withheld on grounds of attorney-client privilege, they said on Sunday news shows. But some Democratic senators disputed the need to keep them secret and argued that precedent suggests they should be released.

Roberts, 50, worked in the Reagan White House counsel's office from 1982 to 1986. He served in the Justice Department of the first President Bush as principal deputy solicitor general.

Fred Thompson, a lawyer, actor and former Republican senator who is advising the nominee, said that releasing documents written while Roberts was deputy solicitor general would bring to light "internal documents, memos about ongoing recommendations and positions." He compared them to privileged conversations with a priest, a physician or a spouse.

"There are lots of good reasons why [making them public] is a bad idea," Thompson said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, appearing on three of the news shows, said that releasing internal documents written by Justice Department lawyers "does chill communications between line attorneys and their superiors within the Department of Justice."

On Fox News Sunday, he characterized the documents as "very sensitive, very deliberative information, not something that the administration or any White House would be inclined to share because it is so sensitive."

"That would be something that we'd have to look at very, very carefully," he said, the Associated Press reported. "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."

Thompson, who served three decades ago as the chief counsel to the Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee, contended that leaders in both parties, from Watergate special prosecutor "Archibald Cox on down," have believed that such documents should be withheld.

He added: "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."

But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, disputed that there was a lawyer-client privilege.

"It's a total red herring to say, `Oh, we can't show this,'" he said on ABC's This Week.

He said that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, former federal appeals court judge Robert H. Bork, former Attorney General Edwin W. Meese III and others had given up documents written while they worked for the Justice Department.

"Those working in the solicitor general's office are not working for the president," Leahy said. "They're working for you and me, and all the American people." He said there was "much precedence" for providing such documents.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, described the documents as potentially an important part of Roberts' record.

"There have been important questions raised about things that he said and things that he wrote when he was working for the government," Durbin said on NBC.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, appearing on ABC, said he believed that the administration might be able to release material written by Roberts when he was in the solicitor general's office but not when he was in the White House counsel's organization.

Releasing documents written in direct service for the president "could have a real chilling effect on the kind of candor in communications that people would have with the president," McCain said.

But Democratic senators stopped short of saying they would vote against Roberts, or try to filibuster his confirmation, if the administration withheld papers they believed to be relevant.

"You have to see it in context," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on Fox News Sunday.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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