Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers asserted yesterday that no one knows whether she would vote to overturn the landmark court ruling that gave women the right to abortions, according to two senators who held separate meetings with her.
Trying to woo senators who will determine whether she is confirmed for the court, Miers aided the White House as it scrambled yesterday to quell controversy over a published report that two Texas judges said she opposes the 1973 decision that affirmed the right to an abortion in all 50 states. "She said, 'No one knows how I would rule on Roe v. Wade,' " Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters after their private meeting.
But as Miers sought to distance herself from the judges' assertions, her day on Capitol Hill ended in confusion over how far she went in telling senators that she believes there is a constitutional right to privacy -- the right that is the legal premise of Roe.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) emerged from a 100-minute meeting with the nominee and said that she stated she believes that a right to privacy exists. Initially, Specter told reporters that Miers had said "she backs Griswold," referring to a 1965 case that dealt with access to contraceptives on the basis of privacy considerations.
But last night, a spokesman for Specter issued a statement saying that Miers had called him after his public comments "to say that he misunderstood her and that she had not taken a position on Griswold or the privacy issue."
"Sen. Specter accepts Ms. Miers's statement that he misunderstood what she said," the statement said.
Former senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who is helping guide Miers through the confirmation process, sat in on her meeting with Specter. He later said Miers agreed that the constitution's "liberty clause" implies a right to privacy. But she stopped short of embracing specific rulings such as Griswold, according to White House spokesman Jim Dyke, who spoke with Coats.
Meanwhile, Schumer said that he had asked Miers whether she believes Griswold is "settled law," and that "she said she was not ready to give an answer on that."
Specter, a moderate Republican who supports abortion rights, will preside over Miers's confirmation hearings. He seemed eager to put her qualifications in the best light possible, defending her against assertions that she knows little about constitutional law.
Specter said he questioned her about several civil cases she had handled as a lawyer in Dallas and found her versed in their sometimes complex legal issues. He also said Miers, as president of the Dallas bar and the Texas bar, had pushed for greater participation by minorities and had handled a habeas corpus case free.
"All of that is relevant as to her capacity to handle constitutional issues," Specter said.
Miers, the White House counsel and a longtime confidante of Bush's, met yesterday with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They will conduct her confirmation hearings, probably next month.
Schumer said he had pressed Miers on her views about Roe in response to a column yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. The column by John Fund reported that, on Oct. 3, the day Bush nominated Miers, two Texas judges who know her conducted a conference call with conservative leaders and assured them that she would vote to reverse Roe.
One person on the conference call, who declined to be named because it had been a confidential event, yesterday confirmed the thrust of the account. Another source knowledgeable about it said the judges did not say they had discussed the abortion ruling with Miers and were merely offering their opinion of how she would vote.
Contacted yesterday, one of the judges on the call, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, said, "I don't recall saying that." Hecht said he did not remember what was said by the other speaker, U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade.
Hecht has said in many interviews that Miers personally opposes abortion and considers it murder. He said he did not recall discussing the legal issues with her. "Here's the truth: I don't know. I really don't know."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that the Oct. 3 call was not "organized by the White House." Asked whether the White House thought Miers might overturn Roe, he said: "We don't know what her positions will be on future cases because we don't . . . ask those questions."
That did not satisfy some Democrats. Schumer said he would considering calling the two judges to testify during the confirmation hearings to explain their reported remarks.
Meanwhile, the American Bar Association released unofficial transcripts of the most public action Miers has taken related to the issue: an unsuccessful effort in the early 1990s to rescind a resolution the lawyers organization had adopted in support of Roe.
Speaking as the leader of the Texas Bar Association, and then as a voting delegate to the ABA's governing body, Miers attempted once in 1992 and twice in 1993 to convince the organization that its position in favor of Roe was ill-advised, the transcripts confirm. Miers did not directly disclose her own views, arguing that it was improper for the ABA to take a position on such a polarizing issue.
The only moment during those meetings at which she hinted at her feelings about abortion came during the 1992 annual meeting, when she seemed to speak to proponents of the pro-Roe resolution. "Now those who are committed to choice and who advocate the resolution desire the prestige of the ABA behind the cause," she said. "I understand that. You understand that."
On another matter, Miers's reputation for meticulousness came into question yesterday for a series of liens attached to several vacant lots in Dallas she controlled in a low-income, mostly minority area, after the lots became overgrown and posed potential health and safety hazards, according to city records.
The liens, attached before and during her White House tenure and all now cleared, were for repayment of city costs for clearing the lots, according to a city spokesman, Celso Martinez. The city cleans a lot if the owner does not respond to complaints, then imposes what is known as a "labor lien" if the bill is not paid, Martinez said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the properties technically belong to Miers's elderly mother, Sally Miers, who is in a skilled-nursing facility and for whom Miers has had power of attorney since 1995.
According to Newsday, which first reported the existence of the liens, Miers was hit with 10 liens, worth less than $2,000, after assuming power of attorney for her mother.
Staff writers Dan Balz, Jo Becker and Dale Russakoff contributed to this report.