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Some Critics Still See Bugs

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Yesterday was the scheduled release of Miers version 2.0, in which the White House would introduce a better-qualified Harriet Miers to the American public. But was it an upgrade?

President Bush, in the Oval Office with some Texas jurists who back Miers, said his Supreme Court nominee has "high character" and "integrity," is "a pioneer" and a "leader" and is one of the top "women lawyers" who would bring "excellence to the bench." Miers "will be a superb Supreme Court judge," Bush said.

This was meant to be an improvement on the announcement of Miers's nomination two weeks earlier, in which Bush praised her "character" and "integrity" and called her a "pioneer" and a "leader" among "women lawyers" known for her "professional excellence." Miers is a "superb choice," he said back then.

Up on the Hill, meanwhile, the pioneering, superb and excellent nominee was still having difficulty getting respect yesterday. Miers arrived about 10 minutes early for a get-acquainted session with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D), but he was still traveling from the airport. The nominee had to cool her heels in the public reception area, making small talk about an old Schumer campaign poster under the watchful eyes of a dozen television cameras.

"I apologize," the senator said when he arrived to rescue Miers. "We sat on the runway."

In the fortnight since Miers was nominated to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the administration has been upended by criticism from typically loyal conservatives. So the White House sought to relaunch Miers yesterday, dropping the appeal based on her religious beliefs in favor of an appeal based on her credentials as a first-rate lawyer.

To that end, the Republican National Committee issued a news release highlighting the considered opinion of, among others, the Grand Island (Neb.) Independent. "She is a woman of strong character and deep experience as a legal practitioner," asserted the Grand Island editorialists.

But conservatives, who are seeking evidence that she is a judicial fellow traveler, were unimpressed. "A nomination that invites a discussion of qualifications is a nomination that is in serious trouble," declared Manuel A. Miranda, who leads a conservative legal group calling for Miers to withdraw before Bush "is further embarrassed."

The White House took a different view. After Bush met with six former justices from the Texas Supreme Court, brought to town to stump for Miers, they were dispatched to the north driveway of the White House to dispense superlatives: "Top-notch legal ability." "Excellent lawyer." "A lawyer's lawyer."

John L. Hill Jr., a former chief justice, tried to top them all. "I would trust her with my wife and my life," he announced.

His wife? "Does Bitsy know you said that?" asked Texas reporter Ken Herman.

If the Texas judges were trying to reassure antsy conservatives, they didn't accomplish much. "I know this," Hill said. "Whatever her personal view might be on any subject, it will not influence her decision making on that court." That would seem to discredit the argument, encouraged by the White House last week, that her born-again Christian beliefs made her an opponent of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Carl Cameron of Fox News tossed aside the credentials and asked the judges to describe something Miers did that "led to a demonstrable outcome of a conservative judicial philosophy." They could not.

"Well, I --I -- I will answer it this way," Hill said, citing an instance in which Miers opposed mandatory pro bono work for lawyers in favor of voluntary pro bono work. Cameron pushed again, fruitlessly, for specifics. Moments later, a White House spokeswoman declared the session over, and when a couple of the judges lingered, a handler cut them off with a call of "Gotta go to lunch, Judge."

Cameron, unsatisfied, took his query to Scott McClellan's briefing, asking if the White House press secretary "had any luck" finding evidence of Miers's pre-2000 conservatism.

McClellan had not. "She is someone who has grown to deeply respect the Constitution and our laws," came his vague offering. In answer to another question, McClellan gave conservatives more heartburn when he said the White House is "not at all" aware how Miers would vote on overturning Roe .

Schumer, after his meeting with the nominee, was happy to join McClellan in unnerving conservatives -- even while slyly undermining her legal qualifications. He reported that Miers told him "no one knows how I would rule on Roe v. Wade ." He said the nominee wouldn't talk specifics with him about important cases.

"She deferred, saying, 'I need to sort of bone up on this a little more -- I need to come to conclusions' would be a better way to put it," Schumer said. Playing the avuncular law professor, he added: "I'm going to give her a break. She is not a constitutional lawyer . . . but she clearly needs some time to learn about these cases."

Miers 2.0 had only just hit the street, and Schumer was already asking for Miers 3.0.

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