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Leaked court documents show Roberts’ liberal leanings

WASHINGTON – As a legal adviser to President Reagan, Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. joined a scathing denunciation of abortion-clinic bombers and urged Reagan to stay out of an effort to post tributes to God in Kentucky schools.

Roberts’ advice, in documents Knight Ridder obtained before their public release later this month, might help him counter critics who portray him as a doctrinaire conservative. Abortion-rights groups and organizations that advocate a clear separation between church and state oppose his nomination.

Both sides in the nomination debate are scouring court briefs, legal memos and other documents for anything that can help make the case for or against Roberts’ ascension to the nation’s highest court. The documents that Knight Ridder obtained were leaked by an administration official who wanted to show the nominee as a servant of the law, not of conservative ideology.

In another development that could confound Roberts’ liberal critics, the Los Angeles Times has reported that he worked behind the scenes, without charge, for gay rights activists in a 1996 case that led to a Supreme Court ruling protecting homosexuals from discrimination. Roberts, who was then in private practice, was asked to join the case by a colleague at his Washington law firm.

In the abortion-clinic case, Roberts was asked to respond to reports in 1986 that Reagan would consider granting presidential pardons to convicted bombers. The issue arose when leaders from two anti-abortion groups, the American Life League and the Pro-Life Action League, were quoted as saying Reagan was open to the possibility of pardons on a case-by-case basis.

Roberts and his boss, deputy White House counsel Richard Hauser, suggested a strongly worded response that ruled out favors for clinic bombers.

“The president unequivocally condemns such acts of violence and believes that those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” their draft reply said. “No matter how lofty or sincerely held the goal, those who resort to violence to achieve it are criminals. … Neither the cause that these misguided individuals mistakenly believed they were serving, nor the target of their violence, will in any way be considered to mitigate the seriousness of their offense against our laws.”

In the Kentucky school case, Roberts advised Reagan to stay out of a 1985 effort to require teachers to post the national motto – “In God We Trust” – and the preamble to the state constitution in their classrooms. The preamble declares, “We, the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, are grateful to Almighty God for the civil, religious and political liberties we enjoy.”

Supporters of the measure wanted Reagan’s endorsement to help get it through Kentucky’s legislature.

Roberts nixed the idea in his reply a week later. He questioned the constitutionality of the proposal and concluded that “it would be inappropriate” for Reagan to endorse it.

Roberts’ critics on the church-state issue point to a brief that he co-authored as a deputy solicitor general on school prayer. The Supreme Court rejected his view in a 5-4 ruling.