WASHINGTON -- Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said Tuesday the questioning of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist by Democrats during his confirmation hearings was disgraceful and an attempt to smear the chief justice nominee.
Thurmond, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, made the comments at the White House after GOP congressional leaders met with President Reagan.
Thurmond has steadfastly defended Rehnquist in the face of strong Democratic opposition at Rehnquist's confirmation hearings last week. During those hearings, the Democrats demanded the release by the White House of the written comments Rehnquist made while serving in the Nixon Justice Department in the early 1970s.
Reagan, claiming executive privilege, refused to allow the release of the documents and Democrats, led by Kennedy, threatened a vote to subpoena them.
Asked if he was going to allow a subpoena, Thurmond said Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., and Kennedy 'are trying to reach an agreement on that.'
'Of course, I'm against any subpoena,' said Thurmond. 'I don't think it's necessary. I think it is just a fishing expedition that they're going after.
'Mr. Rehnquist has made a splendid Supreme Court justice for 15 years, and it seems to me that all they're trying to do is smear him,' he added.
As for the questioning of the nominee by the Democrats, Thurmond said, 'I think it's disgraceful.'
He said he was referring to 'the manner in which they handled it.'
A Democratic aide said Tuesday committee members would take up the document dispute involving Rehnquist at the end of the day after hearing testimony from Antonin Scalia, who was nominated by Reagan to the high court.
President Reagan nominated Rehnquist, who has been on the court since 1972, to replace retiring Chief Justice Warren Burger and tapped Scalia to fill Rehnquist's seat on the court. Both men must be confirmed by the Senate.
In four grueling days of testimony last week, Rehnquist denied charges he had harassed black voters at the polls in Phoenix, Ariz., in the early 1960s, and said he did not know two properties he owned had deeds prohibiting their sale to blacks or Jews.
But the issue of Rehnquist's writings at the Justice Department threatens to overshadow other questions raised at the hearing. If a compromise is not reached over releasing documents, it could lead to a prolonged legal battle and delay his confirmation.
The documents involving Rehnquist relate to such issues as civil rights, civil liberties, executive privilege, national security, domestic surveillance, antiwar demonstrations, wiretapping, leak investigations and the May 1970 killings of students by National Guard rifle fire at Kent State University, in Ohio.
In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday, the Justice Department noted it had already turned over 40 documents relating to Rehnquist.
The department's letter said there had been widespead misconception the department had issued a blanket refusal to turn over the material.
The letter also said it could not turn over everything requested because it would compromise the department's 'continuing ability to provide objective legal advice to the executive branch.'