More poodle than pit bull

October 10, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- With Alan Greenspan due to step down in January as chairman of the Federal Reserve, there is a lot of speculation about who will replace him. Big-name candidates abound, but I'm betting on the accountant who does President Bush's taxes.

The 19th century writer Henry Adams said that the progression of presidents from Washington to Grant refuted the theory of evolution. He could have said the same thing about the Supreme Court appointments made by President Bush, who has nominated one of the strongest candidates in the last 50 years and one of the weakest.

For the latest vacancy, Mr. Bush conducted a wide-ranging national search and ended up with someone from down the hall. After John G. Roberts Jr., the only appropriate response to the nomination of Harriet Miers, on either the right or the left, is: You cannot be serious.

It is hardly her fault that she is not Supreme Court material. Ms. Miers is an accomplished attorney who has worked for corporations that can afford high-quality representation. She landed a plum legal job as White House counsel. She's had a career plenty of young lawyers might aspire to.

But the fact that Willie Nelson has sold a lot of CDs doesn't mean he ought to be singing with the Metropolitan Opera. There is nothing on Ms. Miers' resume to suggest she is prepared to handle the formidable responsibilities of a Supreme Court justice.

The official White House line is that she was chosen because she was the very best person available. Asked if she was the most qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, Mr. Bush replied with charming circularity, "Yes. Otherwise I wouldn't have put her on." The amazing thing is not that he could make such a claim, but that he could make it without laughing out loud.

As lawyers go, she undoubtedly is very good. As Supreme Court justices go, however, she does not even rise to the level of mediocre.

If you had asked a host of appellate attorneys, law professors and heads of major law firms a few weeks ago to name 50 people deserving of consideration for the court, it's safe to bet none would have suggested Harriet Miers.

About all she has demonstrated is a quality prized in this White House: a deep and fervent devotion to the president.

The president insists that if she's good enough for him, she's good enough for the rest of us. "I know her character," he declared. "I've worked with Harriet. ... I know her heart. ... I know exactly the kind of judge she'll be." Message: Trust me.

A president is entitled to give priority to personal loyalty and comfort when he is choosing, say, a staff secretary - a job Ms. Miers previously held. But for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land, a bit more should be expected.

Mr. Bush has described her as "a pit bull in size 6 shoes," but she looks more like his pet poodle. Even the accolades from Senate Republicans suggest as much. Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah promised fellow conservatives that "she's going to basically do what the president thinks she should, and that is be a strict constructionist."

When Chief Justice Roberts was appointed, the president's congressional allies extolled his superb qualifications for the job. Now, most of them have decided that qualifications are an overrated commodity. With a few exceptions, Republicans are ready to settle for an undistinguished nominee just because the president wants her.

Equally disheartening is the response of liberals and Democrats, many of whom would prefer a nonentity with unknown views to an outstanding conservative legal thinker. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada practically gushed. Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights expressed satisfaction at the choice of someone who "wasn't on the short list of the ideological right."

Many people on opposite sides of the partisan and philosophical divide now concur on one thing: Quality doesn't matter.

Most Republicans apparently will support Ms. Miers because they're afraid to challenge their president, and many Democrats will go along because they're afraid of whom Mr. Bush might appoint if Ms. Miers is defeated.

So much for the Senate's role as watchdog of judicial nominees. Ms. Miers might be a poodle, but she's not the only one.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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