Latino Americans Deserve to Know: Will Roberts Respect and Protect Their Rights and Culture?

Several Latino leaders today raised questions about whether Roberts would respect and protect the rights and culture of Hispanic Americans.

At the confirmation hearing for Chief Justice nominee John Roberts on Tuesday, Sen. Schumer asked Roberts about a memo that was cited by MALDEF in its report of opposition to Roberts’ confirmation. Schumer raised the question in the context of concerns over Roberts’ record and perceptions of his insensitivity to discrimination and hostility to civil rights protections. Roberts dismissed Schumer’s concern that the language in his memo might be offensive to some Latinos.

In the September 30, 1983 memorandum advising that written remarks by President Reagan for a publication called “Spanish Today” include a reference to a legalization program in pending legislation, Roberts wrote, “I think this audience would be pleased that we are trying to grant legal status to their illegal amigos” (emphasis in original). MALDEF’s report said, “Whether this is a poor attempt at humor or an insensitive and dismissive comment on the Latino community, it remains disturbing.”

On the second day of the hearing, Schumer asked whether Roberts understood that some people might find his remark offensive, Roberts did not attempt to play off his comments as a “poor attempt at humor.” Neither did he attempt to distance himself from his comments, as he has when being questioned about some of his other long-ago writings.

Instead, he gave an evasive and condescending answer stating that when politicians address Hispanic audiences they typically “throw in some language in Spanish.” His memo, however, was clearly not counseling the use of the term “illegal amigos” by the President or anyone else. It was Roberts’ memo and Roberts’ choice of words. Roberts insisted that his language was appropriate and that Fred Fielding, to whom he had written the memo, “never suggested that it was anything other than appropriate.”

“Judge Roberts’ response displays a lack of understanding of the hardships experienced by minorities in American society. Many times those hardships are not recognized and treated flippantly as reflected in Judge Roberts’ ‘illegal amigos’ comment,” said Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Task Force on Civil Rights. “I wish that Judge Roberts, in the years since making those remarks, had acquired a better understanding of the inequities of the Latino experience as opposed to defending his comments as politics as usual.”

“Latinos deserve to know whether John Roberts would respect their rights and culture as the Chief Justice of the United States,” said Gabriela Lemus, Director of Policy and Legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “How can we expect justice from a judge who doesn’t even give us respect?”

Leon Rodriguez, a member Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary, said "Seeing Judge Roberts up close at the hearing confirmed our worst fears that protection of individual liberties and the rights of minority and disenfranchised citizens form no part of Judge Robert's judicial philosophy." Rodriguez continued, "His disavowal of his executive branch writings as merely reflecting the views of his superiors, on issues such as the Voting Rights Act, seemed downright disingenuous. I find no comfort that Judge Roberts will not turn out to be a conservative judicial activist in the mold of Scalia and Thomas."

“Latinos are looking for evidence that John Roberts will understand how the law affects our lives, and what we see is troubling,” said Jorge Mursuli, Vice President of People For the American Way. “It’s more than an offensive remark. When John Roberts worked in the Reagan White House, he said the federal government should have supported a Texas law that denied undocumented immigrant children the right to attend public schools. Senators must now ask if Roberts holds the same views today that he did when he wrote his memo on Plyler v. Doe and other cases and policy issues such as the need for a national ID card. And this time they should get answers.”

“Judge Roberts’ response to Senator Schumer was very disappointing,” said John Trasvina, Senior Vice President for Law & Policy at MALDEF. “That Judge Roberts still characterizes his comment as ‘generally appropriate’ some 20 years later suggests he might also turn a blind eye to the legal concerns of Latino and other immigrants whose rights come before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Given the exchange between Judge Roberts and Senator Schumer below, it is hard to not conclude that MALDEF’s initial concerns were perhaps well founded – that Roberts was making an insensitive and dismissive comment about the Latino community. His attitude 23 years later remains equally insensitive.

From the hearing transcript:

SCHUMER: The other thing that troubled me was the issue of civil rights. Many of us consider racism the nation’s poison. De Tocqueville wrote about that since 1832. And we know you wrote these series of memos 20 to 25 years ago. Some of them are written in a tone that suggests you may have been insensitive to discrimination and hostile to equal rights.

And I’ve talked to people who might have felt just that. People have said that. So my question is not the substance, but do you regret the tone of some of these memos? Do you regret some of the inartful phrases you used in those memos, a reference to “illegal amigos” in one memo?

ROBERTS: Senator, in that particular memo, for example, it was a play on the standard practice of many politicians, including President Reagan. When he was talking to a Hispanic audience he would throw in some language in Spanish. Again, the memos were from me to Fred Fielding. I think Mr. Fielding always found the tone...

SCHUMER: Don’t regret using that term? Could you think that some people might have found it offensive?

ROBERTS: It was meant to convey the notion, again, as I described, that when politicians speak to a particular audience in that language, is that offensive to the audience? It was meant to convey that. It was an issue concerning a particular radio interview. You know, the tone was, I think, generally appropriate for a memo from me to Mr. Fielding, and I know that he never suggested that it was anything other than appropriate.

SCHUMER: I’d have to disagree with you, but we’ll leave it at that.

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