WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating charges that chief justice nominee William Rehnquist harassed black voters in Arizona in the 1960s, Democratic aides said today--just a day before Senate confirmation hearings begin.
The probe was requested by two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week after charges resurfaced against Rehnquist concerning his role in a Republican election program in Phoenix, where he practiced law in the early 1960s. He has been an associate justice on the Supreme Court since January, 1972.
"There's a fairly extensive FBI investigation under way in which the Justice Department and FBI are interviewing all persons who made allegations against Rehnquist which have not been previously investigated," a Democratic aide on the committee said.
"It is essentially time to clear the air," he said.
Some of the allegations against Rehnquist surfaced in 1971, when he was nominated by then-President Richard M. Nixon to become an associate justice. Opponents say the charges were never fully explored by the Senate Judiciary Committee before the conservative jurist was confirmed by the Senate on Dec. 10, 1971, by a 68-26 vote.
At the time, Rehnquist denied in a written response to questions from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other Democrats that he was involved in harassing minority voters.
Rehnquist has said he was in charge of a controversial Republican "ballot security" program but never personally engaged in challenging the credentials or literacy of Democratic minority voters.
Literacy challenges frequently were used to prevent blacks from voting in many states, but they were illegal in Arizona if they were used purely to harass minorities. They were prohibited nationwide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
An aide to Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who along with Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) made the request for a new FBI probe, said as many as a dozen people may have information concerning Rehnquist's activities in the Republican election program.
In June, President Reagan nominated Rehnquist to replace retiring Chief Justice Warren Burger and tapped federal appeals court Judge Antonin Scalia to fill Rehnquist's seat. Scalia's confirmation hearing is scheduled next week.
Both men are considered to be conservative legal scholars whose appointments will shift the ideological balance of the Supreme Court to the right well into the 21st Century. Both men are expected to be confirmed.
In a report issued last Friday by the Nation Institute, a civil rights advocacy group, three men contradicted the account of the election incident that Rehnquist gave when he was nominated to the court in 1971.
One of those witnesses, Charles Pine, told United Press International that he saw Rehnquist challenge two blacks waiting on line to vote.
Sidney Smith, a poll watcher two decades ago in Phoenix, told National Public Radio that he spotted Rehnquist working a line of black and Latino voters in a heavily minority polling place holding a little white card, which he apparently was asking them to read.
The Washington Post also reported that a lawyer named Melvin Mirkin said Rehnquist was part of a group of Republican activists who turned up at a largely black and Latino precinct early one Election Day and announced that they were there to challenge credentials of the voters waiting in line.