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Senator Patrick Leahy

August 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a newsmaker interview with another key player in the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Last week I talked with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter. This afternoon I sat down with his minority party counterpart, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy.

Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts and Sen. Patrick Leahy were all smiles today. But in the weeks since their first meeting, Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has become sharply critical of President Bush’s first high court nominee, using words like “radical” and “right-wing” to characterize Roberts’ writings.

As he prepares for next week’s hearings, Leahy has already become caught between two poles within his party the anti-Roberts liberals, and the centrist Democrats who have signaled they could support the president’s nominees.

In 31 years in Washington, Leahy has become closely identified with judicial battles. In 1991, he grilled high court nominee Clarence Thomas about his view of Roe v Wade.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Have you ever, private gatherings, otherwise, stated whether you felt that it was properly decided or not?

CLARENCE THOMAS: Senator, in trying to recall and reflect on that. I don’t recollect commenting one way or the other. There were again debates about it in various places but I generally did not participate. I don’t remember or recall participating, senator.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: So you don’t ever recall stating whether you thought it was properly decided or not?

CLARENCE THOMAS: I can’t recall saying one way or the other, senator.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, with all due respect, judge, I have some difficulty with your answer that somehow this has been so far removed from your discussions or feelings during the years since it was decided while you were in law school.

GWEN IFILL: Leahy, 65 years old and in his sixth term, is the only Senate Democrat ever elected from Vermont. Like committee Chairman Arlen Specter, he served as a state prosecutor before arriving in Washington.

We spoke to him today in the Senate’s historic Russell Caucus Room, where the Roberts hearings are scheduled to begin next week.

Senator Leahy, welcome.


GWEN IFILL: You met today with Judge Roberts. How did that go?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, it was the second meeting we’ve had, actually the second meeting on this nomination. Obviously we met before when he was up for the court of appeals. I found it a very interesting meeting.

As we all know, he’s a very pleasant person, very articulate and obviously very knowledgeable as a lawyer. Three things, of course, those of us who are lawyers find very, you know, very interesting. I enjoyed the discussion with him.

GWEN IFILL: Did you get to ask him any specific questions that you are willing to talk to us about?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I asked a few questions. They’re more of a general nature. I did express my concern that the White House is blocking the release of some of the positions he took as a political appointee in the Solicitor’s General Office.

And my disappointment was because those would show not whether he’s a good lawyer or not — we all know he’s a good lawyer. We all know that if he has a client that says here are my cases, he’ll argue it very well. He could argue for a person or against a person depending upon who his client is.

But in the Solicitor General’s Office, that’s where they make a determination what position the United States will take and which cases they will take to make a case. Those are the areas I’d like to see.

GWEN IFILL: Did he indicate to you that he might be interested in having those documents released?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I think he feels constrained by what the White House has said. The White House won’t let them — won’t bring them forward.

I’m also concerned about some documents that were lost. It was no fault of his. But, of course, we were supposed to get the documents from the Reagan Library. At the last minute the White House said no, no, no, you can only see them after we see them even though they’re going to become part of the public records anyway.

And apparently some that were on affirmative action, the White House looked at them and suddenly they’ve disappeared. The White House said they gave them back and they would be glad to tell us their analysis of what’s in it. Coming from the Ronald Reagan library, I take the Reagan position: Trust but verify. I want to see the original documents.

GWEN IFILL: In the time since you met him on this nomination first on July 20 and today, you’ve said some increasingly tough things about him. If you don’t mind I’d like to actually read them to you.


GWEN IFILL: You said, as you well know, about these papers: “Those papers that we have received paint a picture of John Roberts as an eager and aggressive advocate of policies that are deeply tinged with the ideology of the far right wing of his party then and now. In influential White House and Department of Justice positions, John Roberts expressed views that were among the most radical being offered by a cadre intent on reversing decades of policies on civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, privacy and access to justice.” That’s tough talk, senator.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: It’s fairly tough especially we Vermonters tend to say things in somewhat a more quiet way. But I meant it. And I talked about that, I actually talked to him about the — virtually what you just read.

And I was asking to what extent is John Roberts the 27-year-old, 28, 29, 30-year-old John Roberts — eager acolyte in the Reagan administration — how does that person relate to the Judge Roberts today?

And the reason I asked him that question, I said, my feeling about it anybody who is going to be a federal judge especially a Supreme Court judge, I want to know before I vote for that person, could I feel safe if my case was before them or your case or the person two doors down from here, their case? Would they have a case that would be heard on the merits or would it be predetermined?

Now, some of the writings you saw there gave the impression of somebody who predetermined these things. I want to know that he would sit as a judge with an open mind to make up his mind. Is he going to be a conservative jurist? Sure. I voted for a lot of conservative jurists, but I voted for these jurists on the assumption that they were people who would give you a fair shake and would not predetermine a case.

GWEN IFILL: When you said that he would — you had concerns about his stand on civil rights, what particularly are you talking about?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I wanted to understand that he really cares about affirmative action, he cares about equality. I wanted to make sure he understands there’s a lot of discrimination in the United States today. We have laws that try to redress that and is he going to be open to the application of those laws?

GWEN IFILL: When you think about the things that you know that he has written and the things you don’t know about that the White House has not been willing to release, do you think that someone is trying to hide something from you?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I worry about the things that suddenly got lost by the White House. Maybe they’ll turn up. Maybe they won’t. I’m not willing to just accept what they say about them. I want to see what they say.

But I think they do Judge Roberts a disservice by holding things back especially those areas that reflect what his judgment of what the law should be, not just what the law is, but what the law should be.

They do him a disservice because then everybody speculates on what he would say but then at the same time that puts a heavier burden on us, a burden that we should try to carry to ask the questions to find out who he is. I don’t think any senator should feel justified in automatically voting for him unless they’re satisfied that person is going to reflect all of us.

GWEN IFILL: In previous judicial confirmation battles you have urged the White House to take the advice of the American Bar Association. The American Bar Association has said that Judge Roberts is well qualified. Does that sway your thinking?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: It is part of my thinking. I wish in a way to read all the things that the rest of us did, but no, I think that is. I think conversely if they said he wasn’t qualified, then that would hurt him a great deal but I think everybody knows he’s a brilliant judge. Everybody knows he’s a brilliant lawyer. He’s been an extremely gifted advocate before the Supreme Court.

GWEN IFILL: You as the ranking Democrat on this committee are probably the subject of a lot of competing e-mails, phone calls, pressure, shall we say.


GWEN IFILL: Have you heard that? From centrist Democrats, liberal Democrats, interest groups. They all are, I’m sure, zeroing in on you. What kind of pressure are you feeling?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I’ll always talk to any senator who wants. I’ve done this for over 30 years in the Senate. I’d be glad to talk to any senator who wants to talk about it. I’m not meeting with interest groups from either the right or the left.

GWEN IFILL: Any senators trying to influence your vote?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No, no. And, interestingly enough, you know, on other issues, senators will come and try — obviously we got this appropriations bill coming up or an agriculture bill or whatever. Senators, as we should, will go around trying to get other senators to vote with you. No senator has suggested to me how to vote one way or the other.

GWEN IFILL: You and Senator Specter have a famously cordial relationship. Does preparing for a hearing like this put any pressure or any tension on that?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No. I mean, we often have times we vote differently. We often have times we take even within the Judiciary Committee different views on things. But we have a great deal of respect for each other and each other’s ability. And I think you have that old prosecutors’ bond where we can usually work things out.

GWEN IFILL: What should Americans who are watching these hearings next week be listening for?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: They should listen to those senators who actually ask questions. And those who want to just simply give a speech, either for or against Judge Roberts without asking questions, frankly I’d ignore them. I don’t care which party they belong to.

Listen to those asking questions and see if those questions give you a view of a justice who could fairly hear your case, no matter who you are in America. Do you feel satisfied this man could hear a case involving me? If you’re satisfied with that, then you’ve got a good justice. If you’re not satisfied with that, you have reason for concern.

GWEN IFILL: And what will you be listening for as he answers those questions?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Basically the same thing. You know, there’s only 101 people that get a say in this: The president, of course, most importantly in making the nomination, and then the 100 senators. We have to stand in the shoes of 280 million Americans.

I think some of my fellow senators sometimes don’t realize the responsibility that is. It’s not a responsibility to jump to an instant conclusion. It’s a responsibility to take your time, really pay attention because we’re representing all 280 million Americans. And I want to make sure that when I vote — at this moment I have absolutely no idea how I will vote — but I want to know when I vote I feel I’ve carried that responsibility.

GWEN IFILL: In all of the years that you’ve been following this process and been involved in it, what have you learned from past Supreme Court nomination processes that you would apply to this one?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I’ve learned that it is wise to wait to make up your mind. I look at the both the right and the left cite the case of Robert Bork without appearing as though they were actually at the hearing.

Before the Bork hearing began, I suspect he had a majority if not all of the members of the Judiciary Committee were going to vote for him. Now at that hearing went on and as the answers to his questions came out, some of them were actually rather strange answers, you could see the change within the committee.

And ultimately the committee voted against him. Ultimately the Senate Republicans and Democrats voted against him. But also the American public watching the hearing, you could tell from the calls to the offices to all of us, Republicans and Democrats that public opinion turned very strongly against him.

So the thing is wait until you get in there. Who knew about Anita Hill before the hearing began? Sandra Day O’Connor, when she was nominated there was a lot of concerns expressed by some of the liberal groups that, well, she’s a conservative from Arizona, a conservative legislator and all. The vote on her was 99-0. It was a very good vote. Some of these same groups that were critical of her when she was first nominated are now the ones who say, boy, we need another justice just like Sandra Day O’Connor. Keep your powder dry.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Leahy, thank you.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: It’s good to be with you.