The less-than-momentous side of the Roberts papers
In his early years as a lawyer, US Supreme Court nominee John Roberts worked at the most prestigious address in the government - the White House. Yet, not all his assignments were destined for the pages of American history.
Some were just plain wacky. For instance, In September 1984, a Los Angeles man wrote to complain that all property in the US had been placed in a secret trust. Roberts response was direct:
"Please be advised that all property in the United States has not, in fact, been placed into a trust," the letter says.
Weeks later, a Portsmouth, Ohio, group wrote to ask permission to declare a Child Abuse Awareness Week. Roberts advised his boss, the White House Counsel, that "Portsmouth, of course, can have any week it wants without presidential permission."
Such are the minutiae emerging about Mr. Roberts, who is becoming the most investigated man in America. The search for details about his legal and political views has prompted release of tens of thousands of pages he authored after his appointment as an associate counsel in the Reagan White House in 1982. Aside from their potential value in the confirmation process, the Roberts archives offer a rare, and sometimes surprising, behind-the-scenes view of life as a West Wing lawyer.
In his high-powered job, the young Roberts offered his take on weighty matters, including separation of powers, civil rights and school prayer.
But along the way he also had to deal with more mundane things like helping screen presidential appointees to a wide range of offices. Were there any legal or ethical impediments to Charlton Heston becoming a member of the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? There were judges and ambassadors and even an appointment to something called the North Pacific Fur Seal Commission to check.
A significant amount of Roberts's time was taken up researching appropriate responses, if any, to letters sent to President Reagan.
Roberts took an active role in preventing presidential correspondence with pop superstar Michael Jackson. He nixed an attempt by journalist Charles Kuralt's publisher to obtain a few kind words about Kuralt to help promote a forthcoming book. And he recommended against the president returning to his former profession for a cameo in an animated movie of Charles Schulz's Peanuts cartoon strip, "This is America, Charlie Brown."
To Roberts such efforts amounted to a presidential endorsement of a commercial venture, "a clear violation of White House policy."
When the Rock Creek Foundation, a Washington, D.C. charitable organization, asked if the president's box at the Kennedy Center could be auctioned off in a fundraiser, Roberts said "no."
In an October 1984 memo, he noted that White House participation even in a charitable auction "is basically selling the prestige of the Office [of the presidency], and that is not for sale, not for any price, not for any cause."
In fairness to Roberts, his memos make clear he wasn't trying to be mean, just consistent, and thus fair (or unfair) to everyone. Indeed, many of the Roberts memos suggest a strong emphasis on ethics and a desire to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
In September 1985, a Missouri congressman wrote Reagan to ask if the president could send a "get-well" note to a federal judge who was recovering from surgery. The congressman scrawled a handwritten postscript on his letter that the judge is a "staunch conservative jurist."
Roberts was not swayed.
"Although the result may seem harsh, I am afraid that no exceptions can be made to the policy of not sending messages of this sort - or any sort - to sitting judges," Roberts wrote.
A porcelain company fared no better. The company, owned by a personal friend of the Reagans, had created a new line of china inspired by one of the president's speeches. It featured patriotic eagles. The company owner suggested the plates could be used to help raise money for the Republican Inaugural Committee.
Again, Roberts stood firm. "This would not only contravene established White House policy concerning endorsement of commercial products," he wrote, "but also, given this particular pattern, call into serious question the President's taste in dinner service."
Such were the flotsam and jetsam that followed Roberts after joining the Reagan White House. One such appeared not long after that appointment in the form of a private note to him from the Justice Department.
"Hope you're having fun there on the fast track," wrote Kenneth Starr, then counselor to the attorney general.
Indeed, Mr. Roberts was redefining the term "fast track." His lawyer's résumé already included employment as a US Supreme Court law clerk and special assistant to the attorney general. Now, his client was the president of the United States.
He was 27 years old.