Harriet Who?

President Bush this morning nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to take the place of Sandra Day O’Connor on our nation’s highest court. To state the obvious, as the Los Angeles Times did, “With Roberts’ arrival at the court, and Miers’ nomination, Bush has moved to put his stamp on the Supreme Court, and how the judiciary interprets the nation’s laws, for a generation or more.”

The nomination, then, could not be more important. But who is Harriet Miers? In overview stories posted on their Web sites in the hours after Bush’s announcement, the Big Three — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times — began looking for answers to that question.

Complicating matters for both the press and rabid partisans eager for a fight, Miers, 60, a longtime confidante of the president’s, is not easy to label either a liberal or a conservative. “[She] has never been a judge, and therefore lacks a long history of judicial rulings that could reveal ideological tendencies,” the New York Times noted. “Her positions on such ideologically charged issues as abortion and affirmative action are unclear.”

Miers’ resume is impressive — at various times she has served as the president’s personal lawyer, as head of the Texas Lottery Commission, and in the White House as assistant to the president, staff secretary and deputy chief of staff. In her Texas law career she was a trailblazer — the first woman to lead the Dallas Bar Association, the first woman president of the Texas bar, and the first woman president of a major Texas law firm.

But newspapers rightly dwelt on her lack of judicial experience. As the Post reported, “If confirmed by the Senate, Miers would be a rare appointee with no experience as a judge at any level.” But not that rare; for Lewis Powell, Earl Warren, Felix Frankfurter and William Rehnquist, their Supreme Court seat was their first judgeship.

There’s a second issue on which the press needs to show follow-through and vigilance: the mystery of Miers’ personal beliefs. Even more so than with John Roberts, Miers’ stances on various important issues likely to come before the court are an unknown. At this point there are far more questions than answers, but the most intriguing discussion we saw came not from the Big Three but from a piece by the Associated Press:

Miers reveals little of her own emotions or ideological persuasions, but has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Bush administration on a broad [series] of initiatives including tax cuts, Social Security reforms, restrictions on federal spending on embryonic stem cell research, national security, education reforms and fighting terrorism.

In hosting an “Ask the White House” interactive forum on the Internet before the 2004 elections, Miers lavished praise on a litany of Bush administration initiatives, then added, “I could go on and on.”

In its exploration of her past and present views, the press owes it to the public to reveal as much as it can find about Miers’ political, philosophical and judicial leanings — especially because, as the Roberts confirmation hearings showed, the Senate cannot be counted on to get much in the way of answers from a nominee.

Finally, whether Miers, with her long history of service to the president, will sit on the court with judicial independence is another question that deserves scrutiny. The Post touched on this with a quote from Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, but only the Los Angeles Times dealt with it in depth:

Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, said the choice, given her closeness to Bush, “raises serious questions about whether he has found a nominee who has the requisite qualifications and independence for the nation’s highest court.” …

Referring to the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, said: “Michael Brown taught us that vital national positions must be filled with qualified candidates, not political friends with little experience. President Bush is asking us to gamble on his personal lawyer and political appointee. We have no information to indicate that Harriet Miers meets the high bar necessary for the next justice on the Supreme Court.”

Harriet Miers is clearly a talented and able lawyer. Whether that means she will be a good Supreme Court justice is another question — one that the press, in the coming weeks, has an obligation to explore.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.