WASHINGTON – As a young lawyer in the Reagan administration, John Roberts consistently advocated a more limited role for the courts, staking a classically conservative position that decisions on social policies were best left to elected legislators, not judges with lifetime tenure.

In the thousands of pages of documents released in the past month, Roberts – now nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court – has emerged as a forceful defender of President Ronald Reagan and his policies, and as an advocate who carefully articulated the administration’s positions on key social issues, from abortion to school prayer.

But his own views of the law and the role of the courts were most clear when he ardently argued against a proposal by then-Chief Justice Warren Burger to help ease the workload of the Supreme Court. Coupled with some of Roberts’ earlier writings critical of judges he believed were setting social policies, the documents reveal a lawyer who believed strongly that courts have a limited role in solving society’s problems.

Roberts’ response this month in a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire suggests his thinking has not changed greatly over the years: “Judges do not have a commission to solve society’s problems, as they see them, but simply to decide cases before them according to the rule of law.”

That language, taken with his earlier positions, suggests that Roberts – like Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – could be inclined to read the Constitution narrowly and refuse to identify new constitutional rights beyond those specifically contained in the document. Conservatives have criticized some Supreme Court justices as too willing to create new constitutional rights – thereby removing the issues from the legislative arena and giving power to courts – in such areas as gay rights and abortion.

As a lawyer in early 1980s in the Justice Department and later in the White House, Roberts indicated he believed that judges who reach out to decide policy questions undermine the democratic process by taking power from elected officials who are accountable to voters.

In the White House, Roberts was most blunt about the limited role of the courts when writing about Burger’s proposal to create a new type of court that would review some of the cases handled by the Supreme Court. In several memos, Roberts – at odds with key high-ranking officials – said the new federal appellate court was a “terrible idea” that could give judges an even more expansive role in social debates.

Over a period of months throughout 1983, in several different memos and meetings, he urged the White House to oppose the new court, a view that prevailed.

“Creating a tribunal to relieve the court of some cases – with the result that the court will have the opportunity to fill the gap with new cases – augments the power of the judicial branch, ineluctably at the expense of the executive branch,” Roberts wrote in a 1983 memo to his boss, White House Counsel Fred Fielding.

Roberts’ correspondence revealed that he had discussed the idea at some length with one of his mentors who opposed the new court, Judge Henry Friendly of the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Roberts had clerked for Friendly after graduating from Harvard Law School and before heading to Washington to clerk for then-Justice William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court.

Kmiec said Rehnquist also shared Roberts’ views on the creation of a new court. Kmiec, who then was head of the Office of Legal Counsel, a post Rehnquist held before his Supreme Court appointment, said Rehnquist had discussed his thoughts about the proposal at a lunch in his old office in the Justice Department in the mid-1980s.

“I had the distinct impression he didn’t think it was a good idea,” Kmiec said of Rehnquist, who now is chief justice. “There was a real risk of the proposal reducing the intended role of the Supreme Court as the final voice.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.