The top two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday complained about the written responses they received from Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers this week, and warned her to expect tough questions from Republicans and Democrats alike when her confirmation hearing begins Nov. 7.
Barely concealing their irritation during a 35-minute news conference at the Capitol, Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) called the lobbying on Miers's behalf "chaotic," and said the answers she provided Monday to a lengthy questionnaire were inadequate. "The comments I have heard range from incomplete to insulting," Leahy said.
They sent Miers a three-page letter asking for more detailed responses in several areas, and Specter said he has asked the Bush administration for more documents concerning her work as White House counsel. Specter said Miers must provide "amplification on many, many of the items" included in the first questionnaire.
Miers quickly replied, writing that she would comply with the new request. She also wrote that "as a result of an administrative oversight," her Texas law license was suspended for 26 days in 1989 because of unpaid dues. On Monday, Miers disclosed that her D.C. law license was briefly suspended last year because of unpaid annual dues.
Announcing plans to start the hearing Nov. 7 despite Democrats' request for more time, Specter told reporters: "This is going to be an unusual hearing where I think all 18 senators are going to have probing questions." The panel has 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.
The two committee leaders -- both of whom voted to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice last month -- said they are bothered by accounts of telephone conference calls in which supporters of Miers reportedly have assured conservative activists that they will be happy with her political views on abortion and other subjects.
"I think it's been a chaotic process, very candidly, as to what has happened, because of all of the conference calls and all of the discussions, which are alleged in the back room," Specter said. "We're looking into them."
A recent Wall Street Journal column reported that on Oct. 3, the day President Bush nominated Miers, two Texas judges who know her conducted a conference call with conservative leaders and assured them she would vote to reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling giving women the right to abortion.
"A good part of what I'm talking about as chaotic is not the White House," Specter said. "What I'm referring to are all of the forces which are at work out here commanding media attention and commanding public attention."
Leahy said: "We're working hard to carry out our responsibilities, not have this thing taken by winks and nods and quiet promises over conference calls. We'd actually like to know what the heck is going on."
Despite strong conservative opposition to Miers, the nomination is not in trouble, Specter said, but he said the process is among the strangest he has seen in 25 years. "There has been more controversy before this nominee has uttered a formal word than I have ever heard," he said.
The Specter-Leahy letter and news conference came a day after Miers disclosed that as a Dallas City Council candidate in 1989, she pledged to actively support a constitutional amendment banning abortion except to save a woman's life if Congress passed such an amendment. Liberal advocacy groups, which mostly have been silent as conservatives wrangled over the nomination, stepped up demands yesterday for more information about Miers's record.
In a letter to Specter and Leahy, the liberal Alliance for Justice complained that Miers "has produced almost nothing in writing to provide the American people a window into her judicial philosophy."
"Given her sparse public record, it is unclear whether she has a basic working knowledge of the issues that the Supreme Court regularly confronts," wrote Nan Aron, the group's president.
At yesterday's news conference, Specter appeared to be annoyed with Miers on several points. He said his staff gave him a "big binder" of legal cases she had handled in private practice, but "she gave us a skimpy little group" of material describing those cases in response to the questionnaire's request for details of her most important cases. "No reason we should know more about her cases than she does," he said.
Specter said he remained perplexed by a disagreement Monday stemming from his meeting with Miers in his office, after which their accounts differed on what the nominee had said about Supreme Court rulings that preceded Roe.
In dealing with 11 Supreme Court nominees, Specter said, "I've never walked out of a room and had a disagreement as to what was said." He smiled politely as Leahy said, "I've never known him to make a mistake on what he heard."
Meanwhile, several constitutional law scholars said they were surprised and puzzled by Miers's response to the committee's request for information on cases she has handled dealing with constitutional issues. In describing one matter on the Dallas City Council, Miers referred to "the proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause" as it relates to the Voting Rights Act.
"There is no proportional representation requirement in the Equal Protection Clause," said Cass R. Sunstein, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. He and several other scholars said it appeared that Miers was confusing proportional representation -- which typically deals with ethnic groups having members on elected bodies -- with the one-man, one-vote Supreme Court ruling that requires, for example, legislative districts to have equal populations.
Some Republicans played down the significance of the Specter-Leahy letter. "Requesting more information from a nominee is part of the confirmation process," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), past chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Another committee Republican, Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), said seeking more information on Miers's White House work was "a reasonable request."
Leahy held open the possibility that Democrats would seek a one-week delay between Miers's hearing -- expected to last four or five days -- and a committee vote on whether to recommend her to the Senate. Committee member Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the decision will depend on how much additional information about Miers the White House releases. "We want to see how much information is forthcoming between now and the 7th," he said.
In a speech last night at a Hispanic Bar Association dinner in Washington, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales sought to reassure Hispanics who "have expressed disappointment" in the Miers appointment.
"You and I know that there will be a Hispanic on the Court," Gonzales, who had been considered for the high court nomination, said in prepared remarks. "But I also know that Latinos want the same thing in a Supreme Court justice that the President wants: someone who can ably and faithfully interpret the Constitution and apply the law. And, I believe, we have that person in Harriet Miers."
Staff writers Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.
Nov. 7 as the date for the Harriet Miers's Supreme Court confirmation hearings.