WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed fellow lawmakers to agree to start confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts (search) in time for the court's next session, beginning Oct. 3.
Sen. Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., threatened to force senators back to Washington one week before the end of their one-month summer recess if they couldn't manage to get a final confirmation vote before Sept. 29.
"Unless we can get assurances, we may have to go to August 29," said Specter, who said his preference would be to start hearings on Sept. 6. Specter refused to give a deadline for his decision.
"We are looking for ways to have commitments or assurances that we can vote Judge Roberts no later than Thursday, September the 29, which would enable us to swear him in on the 30th, and have him get his seat on October 3," Specter said. "If we cannot have those kind of assurances, then it may be necessary to go to the August 29th date, because there are many unpredictable factors which can arise to delay the proceedings."
Specter said starting Sept. 12, which he said some have suggested, was "totally out of the question."
Meanwhile, the White House on Tuesday began turning over to senators some of the documents prepared by Roberts while an administration attorney, but will not give up papers Roberts wrote while in the solicitor general's office from 1989-1993.
"What we are providing goes above and beyond what a reasonable person would expect to be made available. We will be providing more than 75,000 pages of documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will include the time when [Roberts] was White House counsel and special assistant to the attorney general," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday.
"I think the tens of thousands of documents are more than sufficient for senators to do their job," he added.
The documents being turned over represent Roberts' work while he served the late President Reagan but do not include documents written while the principle deputy solicitor general for President George H.W. Bush.
Documents, drafted in 1981 and 1982 when Roberts was a special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith at the Department of Justice, were made public at the National Archives in 1998 when President Clinton waived executive privilege. Those account for about 10,000-15,000 pages.
About 10 percent of the documents being released to the panel are already public in the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The other 90 percent — about 50,000 documents — remain private, covered by the Presidential Records Act. All relate to Roberts' time as an associate counsel in the White House between 1982 and 1986.
White House officials said they asked the library to expedite the review of other Roberts records to determine what can be released. Some pages could be withheld because of national security and privacy or personal reasons.
Mike Duggan, supervisory archivist at the library, said the task of doing a page-by-page review will take a dozen library archivists working for three weeks to finish.
"If we can do it in less than that, we'll do it in less than that," Duggan said.
The documents issue could be critical as the Senate prepares to decide whether to confirm Roberts as Bush's replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search).
Since his two-year tenure on the federal bench has left him with a limited public judicial record, Democrats have hinted they may seek memos, briefs and other documents Roberts wrote while working for Reagan and the first President Bush to shed more light on his stands on such issues as abortion, the environment and federal jurisdiction.
Democrats voiced criticism over how and how many documents were being released.
"I am disappointed that the administration has so quickly closed the door on providing Judge Roberts' documents to the Judiciary Committee. It is far too early to know whether the committee will need those documents and I hope the White House will keep an open mind on document requests," Sen. Charles Schumer (search), D-N.Y., said of the first Bush administration documents.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the White House has a duty to help the Senate "get it right" in making sure the nominee is the best for the job.
"If the White House announcement is intended to begin a dialogue about documents, I welcome it. If it is intended to unilaterally pre-empt a discussion about documents the Senate may need and is entitled to, then this is a regrettable beginning," said the senator from Vermont. "It is for the Senate and not the White House to decide what documents the Senate will need to fulfill its responsibilities in the confirmation process."
Schumer, Leahy and all the other committee Democrats wrote a letter to Bush on Tuesday telling him of their concerns.
"It is far too early to determine whether these documents are relevant, adequate, or even helpful. It may be that this group of documents, along with the upcoming hearings, will give us enough information to fulfill our constitutional duty to advise and consent on this nomination. But it would be premature for either the Senate or the White House to make that determination now," reads the letter.
Click here to read the Democrats’ letter to Bush (pdf file).
White House officials said that Democratic Sen. Joe Biden's recent claim that the documents prepared by Roberts while he was deputy solicitor general belong to the public has no basis in fact. McClellan added that several past Republican and Democratic solicitors general have written their own letter that says to disclose work produced by administration attorneys trying to form government opinions would have a chilling effect on the development of open, candid and honest assessments.
"Democratic and Republican solicitor generals have said that to make that information available would really stifle their ability to have a candid and independent and honest assessment from attorneys in their office," he said. "These future solicitor generals might as well put up a sign that says 'do not apply' if you are thinking about going through a Senate confirmation process."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, added that it's improper for Democrats to try to gain insight into Roberts' opinions while he was serving as an administration lawyer.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the centrists who stopped an earlier Senate fight over Bush's judicial nominees, urged the White House to be flexible with document requests.
"I'd hate to see us get into a battle over whether the administration was going to share documents instead of the basic question of, is Judge Roberts deserving of confirmation to be a justice of the United States Supreme Court," Lieberman said Monday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., suggested she didn't think Roberts' solicitor general memos would be very important "unless it relates to confirming something that becomes a major question."
Leahy said material written in confidence while serving in an administration has been provided in the past — for instance, by Reagan when he nominated William H. Rehnquist for chief justice.
"The Senate should see all relevant material related to Judge Roberts' nomination. We trust that members of the Judiciary Committee and the White House will work out a way for the Senate to review this material," said Rebecca Kirszner, spokeswoman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
A Look Inside Roberts
Ironically, in one of the documents released during the day, the young Roberts wrote that beginning "my first day on the job" he was involved in the administration's efforts to secure confirmation for O'Connor.
In describing her confirmation hearing, Roberts wrote on Sept. 17, 1981, "The approach was to avoid giving specific responses to any direct questions on legal issues likely to come before the court, but demonstrating in the response a firm command of the subject area and awareness of the relevant precedents and arguments."
In addition to drafting suggested answers likely to be put to O'Connor by the Judiciary Committee, Roberts wrote that he "participated in the two 'moot court' sessions with Judge O'Connor held here prior to the hearings."
Another document provides an example of Roberts offering advice that verged on the political. He was assigned to help prepare material for a speech Smith was making to conservative groups at a time when they were expressing unhappiness that the Justice Department wasn't carrying out Reagan's conservative philosophy.
Addressing criticism that judicial nominees weren't "ideologically committed to the president's policies," Roberts suggested something other than a "yes they are" answer. "Rather, we should shift the debate and briefly touch on our judicial restraint themes," he wrote.
"It really should not matter what the personal ideology of our appointees may be, so long as they recognize that their ideology should have no role in the decisional process."
FOX News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.