Business expects a friend in Miers

High court choice well experienced in corporate law

October 06, 2005|By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- As some conservatives attack President Bush's latest choice for the Supreme Court, members of another core Republican constituency - business - are quietly delighted with the nomination of Harriet E. Miers.

Miers was a business lawyer at a blue-chip Texas law firm before following Bush to the White House. Her clients included Microsoft and Walt Disney, and her practice involved mostly corporate disputes.

After her nomination this week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised her.

Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the federation of 3 million businesses, said in a statement that her experience will be "essential in guiding the court on an array of business and other issues."

Robert Gasaway, a Washington lawyer who represents corporations, called her a "very positive nominee from the standpoint of business" and said company counsels he talked with were "uniformly enthusiastic" about her real-world experience in business cases.

"People are confident that she has the experience in the law, and the experience in government, that she would understand the challenges the legal system poses to the economy," he said.

While its constitutional cases draw the most attention, the Supreme Court plays an important role settling antitrust, bankruptcy and other business disputes that are closely watched by executives and corporate lawyers because of the potential impact on company bottom lines.

New appointments are considered so important that the National Association of Manufacturers began reviewing and endorsing nominees this year. The group is vetting Miers' record. Among its criteria is her "understanding of the consequences of judicial decisions on business."

"Usually, these things turn on social issues - gay marriage and those kinds of things - but most of the work these courts do pertains to business," said Hank Cox, spokesman for the association of 13,000 manufacturers.

On its first day this term, the Supreme Court heard a business case involving pay disputes brought by workers of food-processing plants. Besides the usual contract and tax cases it regularly considers, the court is expected to hear over the next several years novel intellectual-property disputes important to business.

Both of Bush's nominees to the Supreme Court have been lawyers well-versed in business cases. In addition to arguing appellate cases, new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. represented Toyota and other corporations at a prestigious Washington law firm before becoming a federal appeals court judge two years ago.

"We haven't had a lot of people on the Supreme Court with hers and Roberts' types of backgrounds," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Elliot E. Slotnick, an Ohio State University professor who has studied Bush's nominations to the federal judiciary, said his Supreme Court choices mark a change in direction after presidents spent years focusing on candidates with backgrounds in constitutional law.

"For a very long time now," Slotnick said, "civil liberties and civil rights issues of the kind that touch us all emotionally - social agenda kinds of issues - have been at the top of presidents' concerns and nominations. Perhaps this is an example of a president who is responding to other interests because their interests are important to him."

Bush and Republican members of Congress have pushed to make the legal system more friendly to business. Many conservatives have assailed the nomination because Miers doesn't have a documented record of positions on hot-button constitutional issues, as do many judges they favor.

Officials with business groups caution that they can't be certain of her views either. But those who know Miers said she has worked quite extensively on business matters ever since graduating from Southern Methodist University law school in 1970 and, as managing partner of a leading Dallas law firm, was considered a member of the local business community.

Miers clerked for a federal district judge in Dallas who heard mostly business litigation and personal injury claims, recalled Donald W. Griffis, a fellow clerk.

Among the cases, he said, was a dispute between American Airlines and a food supplier over whether the food company should be liable for the wing of a jet that one of its trucks clipped and damaged.

At a law firm in Dallas, now known as Locke, Liddell & Sapp, Miers was a commercial litigator handling commercial transactions, breach of contract claims and bankruptcy cases.

Karin Torgerson, a fellow lawyer there, said Miers successfully defended Microsoft from a class action lawsuit that would have involved 11 million people and billions of dollars in claims if she hadn't persuaded a state court not to let the case proceed.

Tom Connop, who worked on cases with Miers for 15 years at the firm, said she represented Walt Disney in lawsuits alleging that other companies were improperly using its trademarks, and her other clients included banks and mortgage companies.

"She developed some very strong relationships with clients," he said. "My impression was she garnered an awful lot of respect from significant lawyers in charge of important legal matters for their companies."

When Dallas faced lawsuits over redistricting, housing and police shootings, Miers won a seat on the City Council in 1989 with the support of the business establishment.

"The business community, the minority community and civic leaders felt that with all this highly polarizing, racially charged complex litigation proceeding against the city, we could use a cool head at the table with a sharp legal mind," recalled Rob Allyn, a Republican political consultant in Dallas.

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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