Is Miers hurt by gender issue?

Critics' alleged bias enters debate over her qualifications


WASHINGTON -- Are critics of Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers guilty of sexism? Or do they simply feel she is unqualified to sit on the nation's highest court?

As the White House and Miers' opponents prepare for what could be contentious Senate hearings, the fact that she is a woman is emerging as a weapon of choice for operatives on both sides.

First lady Laura Bush waded into the dispute yesterday, when asked whether her husband's most recent nominee was a victim of sexism.

"That's possible. I think that's possible," she said, in a joint interview with President Bush on NBC's Today show. "She is so accomplished, and I think people are not looking at her accomplishments."

Separating gender bias from the criticism of Miers' qualifications may not be an easy distinction. But since a top White House operative told senators he sniffed a "whiff of sexism" in the backlash against Miers, the issue has become a focal point in the debate about her fitness for the bench.

To Bush allies, questions about the White House counsel and longtime Bush confidante's qualifications smack of gender bias, ignoring the giant strides she made in the male-dominated Texas legal world of the 1970s and since.

But Miers' critics dismiss the sexism charge as a desperate argument from a White House blindsided by the conservative backlash against her.

Some argue that trumpeting Miers' achievements as a woman is itself a form of sexism by Bush, a suggestion that somehow her triumph over gender stereotypes can compensate for what they say is a glaring hole in her resume - her lack of experience as a judge, or established background in constitutional law.

Laura Bush, who was uncharacteristically vocal in declaring that her husband ought to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a woman, added her voice to the chorus of administration aides promoting Miers' gender as an important factor.

"I know Harriet well, I know how accomplished she is, I know how many times she's broken the glass ceiling herself," the first lady said. "She's a role model for young women around our country."

Her comments echoed irate remarks last week by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. Though publicly undecided about the nomination, Mikulski railed against the criticism of Miers.

"I find this a double standard. I find it incredibly sexist," she said. Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the current Senate, recalled how difficult it was for women in her generation to advance professionally.

"It was very hard to break the glass ceiling," Mikulski said, adding that women "always have to be twice as good" to succeed.

The day Bush announced Miers as his choice, White House aides distributed talking points calling her a "female trailblazer," detailing a string of precedents she set while breaking into the highly competitive Texas legal scene. In 1972, the Southern Methodist University-educated Miers became the first female attorney at her prestigious Dallas firm, and 24 years later, became its first female president. In between, Miers became the first woman president of the Dallas Bar Association and, later, the State Bar of Texas.

Ed Gillespie, the top party strategist who is leading the White House campaign to get Miers confirmed, spoke glowingly of her background in a closed-door luncheon with Republican senators last week, where he said that he detected hints of sexism and elitism in the criticism of her.

But opponents of Miers bristle at the suggestion that those milestones are proof of her suitability for the Supreme Court, arguing that there were several female judges with clear records on important constitutional issues whom Bush could have chosen. Some say it shows that the White House is casting about for ways to defend an otherwise weak nominee.

"It is a sign of how far lost the White House is that one of its key operatives, Ed Gillespie, is reading off the same talking points as liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski," wrote conservative columnist Rich Lowry in the National Review Online. "Both discern sexism in the criticisms of Miers. If it's sexist to question Miers, what is it to be even more unimpressed with the men trying to boost her nomination?"

Some analysts who credit Bush for striving to replace O'Connor with another impressive woman say he has nonetheless undermined the principle of gender equality by choosing Miers.

"Obviously, gender was a factor in this [nomination], and should have been, in the view of many individuals, myself included. ... But then the question is, did he pick a qualified woman?" said Deborah Rhode of Stanford University. Miers' "most central qualification seems to be that she's a pal of the president, and women have as great an interest as anyone in making sure that qualifications and experience guide these decisions, not favoritism."

For Bush, a president known for gathering women into his fiercely loyal inner circle and promoting them to powerful posts, Miers was a characteristic choice.

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