The Miers fight

October 13, 2005

President Bush's choice of Harriet Miers to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court has set off a ferocious reaction and debate about her qualifications and views. Many "friends" of the administration are wondering aloud whether she's an ideological hard-liner or whether she's a closet moderate who would betray the conservative movement that put Mr. Bush in office. Whatever her views, it's her shallow qualifications that are most troubling.

The drama is heightened because Justice O'Connor has played such a pivotal role on the court, often speaking for a 5-4 majority on issues such as abortion. Ms. Miers' credentials for the post are so thin that she has a heavy burden to convince the Senate, her critics and the general public that she deserves the job.

Her task is complicated by the shadow of John G. Roberts Jr., who had argued many cases before the Supreme Court and served as a federal appellate judge before being tapped to become chief justice. His command of the law and the Constitution during his confirmation hearing was often impressive. But some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to ask substantive questions and he often gave unsatisfyingly evasive answers. That can't be allowed to happen with Ms. Miers.

Mr. Bush keeps touting as one of her assets the fact that Ms. Miers comes from outside the "judicial monastery." But if the calculation was that she would be less vulnerable because there was no paper trail of opinions to attack, it has backfired. A long-time civil litigator for corporations and individuals, Ms. Miers certainly broke through the glass ceiling of Texas law firms. But her string of "first woman" accomplishments is hardly unique and doesn't make her any more qualified for the Supreme Court than other female groundbreakers in the legal world.

The fact that she has had little opportunity to wrestle with major constitutional issues such as the right of privacy and separation of church and state is problematic. So is her close personal and professional relationship with Mr. Bush, whom she has served most recently as White House counsel. He can try to assure his followers that he knows her heart, but the rest of us need to be convinced that the personal can be separated from the professional. Her long-time membership in an evangelical Christian church should not be proxy for her judicial philosophy.

Recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings have tended toward the predictable and prosaic. The fact that so little is known about Ms. Miers makes it imperative that her hearing consists of hard questions and forthright answers.

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