Roberts is criticized in early Justice post

Attorneys say he fueled rightward policy shift on civil rights enforcement

July 28, 2005|By NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - In 1982, some career attorneys at the Justice Department grumbled to the press about what they called the "Rehnquist connection" and how it provided the intellectual underpinning for abrupt shifts in policy to the right, particularly on civil rights.

The connection, they said, was two new Justice Department officials who had served as clerks to the Supreme Court's conservative Justice William H. Rehnquist - Charles Cooper and John G. Roberts Jr.

"I was probably one of those grumblers," said Ted Shaw, who now heads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund but back then was a line attorney in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Shaw said he quit in March 1982 in protest of the sweeping policy changes.

Though Shaw did not know Roberts then, he said yesterday that he remembered seeing "a march backward when it came to Justice Department enforcement on school discrimination and employment discrimination, among other things."

The role back then of Roberts, who clerked for Rehnquist right before joining the Justice Department as a young special assistant to the attorney general in 1981-1982, came to life in documents released Tuesday that showed he weighed in on changing longtime policies on race, civil liberties and the courts.

Those papers are raising concerns for some Democrats and liberal groups, although they are holding fire until they learn more about Roberts, chosen by President Bush to fill the vacancy left by retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

But Republicans remained upbeat about Roberts' confirmation, and one moderate Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, said he was leaning toward voting for Roberts.

However, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold confirmation hearings, said yesterday that he would oppose Roberts if he appeared to be an activist out to overturn Roe v. Wade.

And Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and key member of the panel, told the National Press Club yesterday that Roberts, while not among "divisive" nominees Bush could have picked, still must prove he is not an ideologue.

Roberts is not off to a bad start, Schumer said: "He told me flatly that he is not an ideologue and said that he shares my aversion to ideologues."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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