Bush offers crucial supreme court seat to his former lawyer

The Guardian
October 4, 2005
Julian Borger in Washington

George Bush yesterday nominated his former personal lawyer, Harriet Miers, to take the supreme court seat which until now held the balance of power between the court's liberals and conservatives. Ms Miers, whom the president once called "a pit bull in size six shoes" for her legal tenacity, was drawn from Mr Bush's inner circle and had been entrusted with the White House search for supreme court nominees, before being picked herself.

The surprise nomination drew complaints from both the left and right that the former corporate lawyer, who has no experience as a judge, was unqualified, with no judicial record on which to judge her views on abortion, gay marriage and privacy rights. Her nomination was announced hours before John Roberts, the president's first nominee, was sworn in as the supreme court's new chief justice, replacing William Rehnquist, who died last month. Mr Roberts' investiture marked the replacement of one pragmatic conservative by another.

Ms Miers, 60, has been nominated to take the place of Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate swing vote in recent years, and therefore a critical seat that could alter the court's balance. Rightwingers had hoped for a more overtly ideological nominee. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and a conservative columnist, called Ms Miers' nomination an "unforced error".

However, most legal observers said her low profile to date, with no judgments or public opinions on the most emotive issues likely to face the court in the next few years, would make it easy for her to get confirmed. "She is a fairly blank slate," said John Council, a senior reporter on Texas Lawyer magazine.

Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, said: "I like Harriet Miers ... In my view, the supreme court would benefit from the addition of a justice who has real experience as a practising lawyer."

Introducing her on television in the Oval Office, Mr Bush defended his choice. "I've given a lot [of thought] to the kind of people who should serve on the federal judiciary," he said. "I've come to agree with the late chief justice, William Rehnquist, who wrote about the importance of having judges who are drawn from a wide diversity of professional backgrounds."

Ms Miers has been alongside Mr Bush since he ran for the Texas governor's job in 1993, and served as his personal lawyer in a property dispute involving a country cottage he owned in east Texas. He put her in charge of the Texas lottery commission at a time it was under fire for corruption, and she was widely praised for cleaning it up. When Mr Bush moved on to Washington, he took her with him, making her staff secretary, then deputy chief of staff, and finally chief counsel.

Unlike many in the president's immediate coterie, Ms Miers does not have a record in partisan politics. In fact she has contributed money to Republican and Democratic campaigns, including Al Gore's presidential campaign in 1988.

The White House yesterday went out of its way to address conservative disappointment. The vice-president, Dick Cheney, appeared on Rush Limbaugh's rightwing radio talkshow, assuring the host: "I'm confident that she has a conservative judicial philosophy that you'd be comfortable with, Rush."

Democrats gave the nomination a cautious response, pledging to use the Senate hearings to try to prise out her beliefs on critical social and moral issues. "The fact that President Bush has not picked someone from the hard, hard extreme does not absolve us from our duty to find out what her views are," said Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York.

The most critical response came from the right. "Unlike the Roberts nomination, which confirmed the previous balance on the court, the O'Connor resignation offered an opportunity to change the balance," Frum wrote in the online edition of the conservative National Review. "I worked with Harriet Miers. She's a lovely person: intelligent, honest, capable, loyal, discreet, dedicated. But nobody would describe her as one of the outstanding lawyers in the US. And there is no reason to believe that she is a legal conservative, or that she has the spine and steel necessary to resist the pressures that constantly bend the legal system toward the left."

Profile: Harriet Miers

"I am a Texan through and through," Harriet Miers said recently. And until George Bush brought his lawyer to Washington in 2001, she had indeed spent almost her entire life in Dallas.

It is unsurprising he feels comfortable with her. She went to the same college, Southern Methodist University, as his wife and his adviser, Karen Hughes.

Unlike Ms Hughes, Ms Miers' job has been to stay out of the limelight, but, as staff secretary, she decided what crossed the president's desk, and, as chief White House counsel this year, she acted as the administration's lawyer.

Mr Bush hired Ms Miers in 1993 to give legal advice for his governorship campaign. After he won, she became his personal lawyer. Until then, she had been a corporate lawyer, arguing cases for the likes of Microsoft and Walt Disney. She rose to the top of her law firm, Locke, Purnell, Rain & Harrell, and became head of the Texas Bar in 1992, the first woman to rise to such senior positions.

The only controversial issue she has a record on is a Texas call in 1993 for a referendum in the American Bar Association to reconsider its embrace of abortion rights. She is single, intensely private, a devout churchgoer who does not talk much about her religion, and has served on charities. The only sign of a private life on her official biography is a penchant for tennis and opera.


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