Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers left a mixed impression in one-on-one meetings yesterday with Senate Judiciary Committee members, raising the stakes for her upcoming confirmation hearing as the White House scrambled to defend Miers from a barrage of criticism from the right.
Making the rounds on Capitol Hill, Miers sought to reassure conservative Republicans who worry that she could become another David Souter, who was nominated by President Bush's father but has proved a solid liberal vote on most issues. One such skeptic, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), emerged unconvinced about Miers after his one-hour meeting with her.
"I want to see more information come forward," he said. "I still think there's a lot to learn about this nominee."
Conservatives such as Brownback had hoped Bush would pick a nominee with unequivocal convictions on abortion, same-sex marriage and other hot-button issues, and whose vote could move the court decisively to the right. Their problem with Miers is that, as the White House counsel and Bush's former personal lawyer, she has left no trail of documents, judicial decisions or other evidence to suggest where she stands on any constitutional matter.
In a conference call to conservative activists, Bush loyalists tried to assure their audience that Miers would not disappoint them. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said the problem with Souter was that Bush's father did not know him well when he nominated the judge in 1990, and that the justice surprised the White House with his leftist inclinations.
"It's hard to imagine a president having a better knowledge of a nominee than President Bush has of Harriet Miers," Mehlman said. "This isn't taking someone else's word," he said, because Bush knows her "judicial philosophy." Questioning whether Miers is philosophically in sync with Bush is like questioning whether Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld agrees with the president on fighting global terrorism, Mehlman said.
Miers's close ties to Bush are the seed of many Democrats' doubts about her. They suspect she may have been picked more for her loyalty to Bush over the years than for her intellectual heft or constitutional insights.
That makes Democrats as eager as Republicans to hear Miers expound on all sorts of matters -- setting the stage for a confirmation hearing that could be far more revealing than the one conducted last month for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
"She will have to be more forthcoming" than was Roberts, because her paper trail and engagement in broad legal questions is more meager, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said after meeting with Miers for 45 minutes. Durbin told reporters that he asked Miers about some major administration decisions that were made while she was White House counsel, and she declined to say whether she was involved in them. "So we're not even at a starting point" in learning about a nominee whose most prominent job was as White House counsel, Durbin said.
Her relatively thin paper trail adds greater importance to her personal meetings with senators and to the committee hearing that is expected to begin in about three weeks. While generally well received, Miers has had a few awkward moments, including one during her Wednesday session with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
In an initial chat with Miers, according to several people with knowledge of the exchange, Leahy asked her to name her favorite Supreme Court justices. Miers responded with "Warren" -- which led Leahy to ask her whether she meant former Chief Justice Earl Warren, a liberal icon, or former Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative who voted for Roe v. Wade. Miers said she meant Warren Burger, the sources said.
A Republican member of the committee, Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), said after meeting with Miers: "I think the hearings matter in her case probably more than others."
Graham said Miers's challenge will be to "create a comfort level" with conservatives that she shares their strict-constructionist approach to interpreting the Constitution, while convincing the public that she is not biased by her evangelical Christian faith and is qualified for the lifetime post, despite her lack of judicial experience.
Graham said he was "very impressed" by Miers and said the two had discussed her work history and how she had dealt with various types of conflict throughout her career. He described her as a "consensus builder" and a "task-oriented" person.
Brownback said his biggest concern is not knowing where she stands on "key issues of the day," such as abortion, same-sex marriage and property rights. He said that during the meeting, he brought up the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion in the context of another case, and said Miers "did not and would not" articulate a position -- presumably, the senator said, because Roe remains a "live issue" before the court.
One speaker in yesterday's conference phone call was Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. He said his fellow Texans Bush and Miers value loyalty and courage above all, adding: "If she were to rule in ways that are contrary to the way the president would want her to rule, it would be a deep personal betrayal."
But Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, said the call did nothing to clear her doubts about Miers. "I'm still looking for something tangible," LaRue said, saying that she would like to be assured that Miers is steeped in constitutional law. "I didn't hear anything that I hadn't seen or read before."
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.