Getting to Know Her

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

DISAPPOINTMENT awaits anyone who hoped that Harriet Miers's written Senate questionnaire would begin to explain who she might be as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. The 65 pages made public yesterday contain a financial statement and a career history replete with conventional legal practice, bar activities, and worthy charitable and public service stints. Yet they contain a great deal more information than insight, and they do nothing to illuminate why President Bush regards this particular lawyer, among the countless available to him around the country, as "uniquely qualified" to serve on the nation's highest court. The most revelatory fact about Harriet Miers emerged yesterday not from her questionnaire but from her past: her commitment, as a candidate for Dallas City Council in 1989, to "actively support" a constitutional amendment to ban abortion except when the life of the mother is at risk.

Insofar as Ms. Miers addresses substantive questions at all, her answers seemed closely modeled on those of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. She, too, professes belief in a "humble" judiciary that respects the importance of "stability in the law" and consequently respects established precedents except when reconsideration of those precedents "under appropriate circumstances is also necessary." She, too, emphasizes that judges are not policymakers and occupy a limited, though critical, role. All of which are noble, important sentiments, but they are also noble, important sentiments that the American public has just heard from someone else. The burden on Ms. Miers is heavier than the one on Chief Justice Roberts, whose nomination arrived at the Senate with an enormous presumption in its favor given his stellar credentials and reputation. Simply reading off his script will not do.

Ms. Miers did not even attempt to reassure skeptics that she will be adequately independent of the White House in which she has served for nearly five years or of the president she has represented for even longer than that. Asked how she would handle potential conflicts of interest on the court, she noted that she would "abid[e] by both the spirit and letter of the law." Even Chief Justice Roberts, who had nowhere near the baggage she carries on this issue, laid out his presumptive recusals more specifically than that.

The White House last week tried to sell this nomination to restive conservative allies on the basis of Ms. Miers's religion, at least implying that her evangelical Christianity would lead to results they liked. This was an offensive tactic -- just as offensive as the suggestion, say, that Chief Justice Roberts's Catholicism should be a strike against him. When it backfired, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan criticized the press for focusing on "side issues" such as religion, as though the press had brought the matter up. The White House now wants to talk about her qualifications. But in looking through her questionnaire, her biography does not obviously cry out for nomination to the Supreme Court. While the president's choice deserves deference from the Senate, Ms. Miers needs to earn confirmation on her own.

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