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Judge Roberts's Slap at Women

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The accusation that someone is "on the wrong side of history " is tossed around too freely in Washington debate, but it is relevant in assessing John G. Roberts Jr. 's disdain for women 's rights and thus his fitness to become a key swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since World War II, the advancement of women 's rights ranks along with the civil rights movement as one of the most important steps toward making the United States a more just society.

Many of us raised in the 1950s saw our mothers denied jobs for which they were qualified, given menial assignments below their talents, or pushed out of the work force altogether. (My own mother was forced to quit her job after she got married.)

As that history of injustice was addressed in the 1970s and 1980s, how individual men responded was a test for males of that generation much as the black civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was a test for whites. In that sense, the question from the old union song "which side are you on? " mattered.

There were legitimate questions about how one remedy or another was formulated or enforced. But the bigger question for a white American during the civil rights era or a man during the rise of feminism was whether they recognized the underlying injustice that the remedies were designed to address.

Two Memos


Which brings us to two little-noticed memos penned by Roberts when he was a young lawyer helping to shape legal policy in Ronald Reagan 's White House from 1982 to 1986. One of the women 's rights issues at the time was whether women should get equal pay for comparable work, and a Washington state "equal worth " case was winding its way through the federal courts.

Three Republican women in the House of Representatives Olympia Snowe of Maine, Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut implored the Reagan administration to accept a U.S. District Court ruling in favor of the principle. They wrote that "support for pay equity ... is not a partisan issue. "

As the issue heated up in early 1984, Roberts wrote two tartly worded memos, which showed which side he was on.

The first to his boss, Fred Fielding, on Feb. 3, 1984 denounced the notion of equal pay for comparable worth, saying "It is difficult to exaggerate the perniciousness of the 'comparable worth ' theory. It mandates nothing less than central planning of the economy by judges. "

Roberts returned to the issue in a second memo on Feb. 20, 1984, again using language that compared an approach toward rectifying wage discrimination against women to Soviet-style policies, the ultimate insult in the Reagan administration.

Roberts expressed annoyance that three Republican members of Congress would favor what he called "a radical redistributive concept. " He also cited possible justifications for paying women less than men for comparable work, such as the female tendency to lose seniority by leaving the work force for extended periods, presumably for child-rearing.

'To Each ... '

But Roberts didn 't stop there. He included in the memo a quip likening the congresswomen 's advocacy of "equal pay for comparable worth " to the most famous expression of communist principles.

"Their slogan, " Roberts wrote, "may as well be 'From each according to his ability, to each according to her gender. ' "

The existence of these two memos was reported by the Washington Post on Aug. 16 near the end of a lengthy article on the National Archives ' release of Reagan-era documents on Roberts. But the slap at the women 's rights issue has drawn little attention.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at more...)
 

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