WASHINGTON - Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Tuesday he would oppose confirmation of Chief Justice-nominee John Roberts, questioning Roberts' commitment to civil rights and accusing the Bush administration of stonewalling requests for documents that might shed light on his views.
At the same time, Reid readily predicted Roberts will win Senate confirmation, coupling the forecast with a warning of sorts to President Bush as he considers candidates for a second vacancy on the Supreme Court. "No one should think that just automatically they're all going to be easy like this one," he said.
Reid is one of four senators invited to a White House meeting with Bush on Wednesday to discuss the vacancy created by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's decision to retire.
The Nevada senator made his comments as Democrats began taking sides in advance of next week's confirmation vote. President Bush named Roberts, a 50-year-old appeals court judge and former lawyer in two Republican administrations, to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced he will vote for confirmation, and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., edged toward an endorsement, as well. Roberts also commands overwhelming if not unanimous support among the Senate's 55 Republicans.
"After reviewing Judge John Roberts' credentials and meeting with him privately, I have found that he meets my criteria for judges. And that is: only the brightest, most objective minds shall serve on the bench," said Baucus," who added the decision was not an easy one.
"I've not seen anything that would cause me to vote against" Roberts, said Nelson, who is seeking re-election next year in Republican Nebraska and often crosses party lines to support Bush's legislative proposals.
Reid had successfully urged fellow Democrats to refrain from taking positions on the appointment until after the completion of last week's confirmation hearings and the regular Tuesday closed-door meeting of the rank-and-file.
"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.
Referring to publicly released memos that date to Robert's 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 the 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.
"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.
Reid's remarks pleased leaders of women's organizations and civil rights groups who outlined the case against Roberts at a closed door meeting with the Democratic leader last week. According to participants in the meeting, they also said they wanted to run up as many votes against Roberts as possible, in part to try and show Bush he would be risking a fierce fight if he named a more conservative nominee than Roberts to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.
For his part, Reid urged the president to proceed slowly on filling O'Connor's seat, adding, "I don't think he needs to do it in the next couple of weeks, that's for sure."
Beyond that, Reid said he would view it as a "poke in the eye with a sharp stick" if Bush were to nominate any of the 10 appeals court nominees that Democrats blocked in recent years, including some who were later confirmed. He declined to say whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales falls into the same category.
One White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least some of the contenders on the president's list fall into the category that would draw Reid's ire.
Dana Perino, White House deputy press secretary, suggested Reid was changing the standard for judging nominees to the Supreme Court.
"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. Rehnquist was confirmed as chief justice in 1986 on a vote of 65-33.