Credentials, not gender, put target on nominee

October 17, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

The people supporting Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination, who started out looking defensive, have now proceeded to acquire symptoms of outright desperation. Rather than strain themselves with the impossible task of justifying the appointment, they are now on the attack. The critics, they claim, are opposing Ms. Miers just because she's a woman.

In truth, Ms. Miers' gender was one of her two attractions for President Bush - the other being her canine worship of him. But the complaints about her weak credentials would be made even if she had testosterone coming out of her ears.

Ms. Miers, after all, is by any standard the least-qualified Supreme Court nominee since Harry Truman picked his poker buddies. Among conservative women, who are not known for their prejudice against Republican females, she has drawn reactions ranging from tepid support to withering contempt.

Finding a reason to reject this nomination is about as hard as finding sand at the beach. What's tough is coming up with any rationale that would fool a fourth-grader. Yet a bizarre array of activists has joined together in blaming Ms. Miers' cold reception on old-fashioned male chauvinism.

Early on, Ed Gillespie, former head of the Republican National Committee, said the opposition carried "a whiff of sexism." First lady Laura Bush agreed "that's possible," while grousing that "people are not looking at her accomplishments."

Some liberals joined in, such as Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who exclaimed, "Does she have the mental capacity? Give me a break. Would they say that about a man?"

If this is the best Ms. Miers' defenders can do, she must be worse than anyone thought. Conservatives weren't crazy about Ruth Bader Ginsburg when President Bill Clinton nominated her to the court, but nobody ever said she lacked the requisite brainpower.

Nor has anyone accused Ms. Miers of being in the same mental class as, say, Dan Quayle. The charge is not that she bombed the SAT - it's that her professional career has not prepared her for the duties of a justice. Nobody says the people who get MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" are dimwitted, but no one nominates them to the Supreme Court, either.

The truth is that the aggrieved right-wingers would be giving each other champagne showers if President Bush had picked any number of skirt-clad judges - including Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown, Edith Jones and Karen Williams. Their beef with Ms. Miers is that they don't know if she's conservative but do know she's underqualified.

You don't have to be a woman to have your credentials questioned. The same thing happened to Clarence Thomas in 1991. Among the critics was Harvard law professor Christopher Edley, who said, "No one can look at Clarence Thomas' record and find the claim that he was the best qualified person remotely credible."

It's not only conservatives who feel their intelligence is being insulted when the president and his press secretary insist that Ms. Miers is the best possible person for the job. Margaret Donahue Hall, a partner at Ms. Miers' old law firm, told The New York Times, "In my heart of hearts, I know she'd make a great Supreme Court justice, but it's hard to put into words why."

The double standard is not among Ms. Miers' opponents but among her supporters. No white male with her rM-isumM-i would even be considered for the court. Even G. Harrold Carswell, rejected in 1970 because of his ostentatious mediocrity, had spent more than a decade on the federal bench. Ms. Miers has never presided over so much as a traffic case.

There is no rule that Supreme Court justices have to come from the ranks of sitting judges. But if Mr. Bush thinks Ms. Miers has the right stuff to serve in the federal judiciary, why didn't it occur to him to appoint her to an appeals court first?

Of course, it's possible that the real reason so many people oppose the nomination is because they can't stomach the idea of a woman on the Supreme Court. And it's possible that Tom DeLay got indicted because the prosecutor hates Baptists.

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

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