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Q&A: Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court

White House Counsel Harriet Miers was thrust into the national spotlight Monday when President Bush nominated her for the Supreme Court. NPR political editor Ken Rudin takes a look at the nominee, the initial response to her and the outlook for her Senate confirmation.

Who is Harriet Miers?

President Bush has long relied on Harriet Miers. Their relationship goes back to when he was governor of Texas and she was his personal attorney. He later appointed her as head of the Texas Lottery Commission when that commission was immersed in scandal. When Mr. Bush became president, she was his staff secretary, deputy chief of staff and, since 2004, the White House counsel. Interestingly, she succeeded another longtime Bush ally, Alberto Gonzales, who moved on to become attorney general.

In hoping to replace Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, Miers is also one of many "firsts." Most notably, she was the first woman to serve as president of the Texas Bar Association.

Was President Bush determined to choose a woman to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor?

The President was getting advice from everywhere as to what this nominee should be. Conservatives, of course, wanted a conservative. Hispanics were hoping to see the first Hispanic on the high court (and many were pushing Gonzales). And there was no shortage of those who wanted a woman, among them First Lady Laura Bush. But many of the women being mentioned -- such as Judges Edith Brown Clement, Edith Jones and Priscilla Owen -- were either controversial or had wide paper trails, guaranteed to force a battle in the Senate, if not a filibuster threat from Democrats. By picking Miers, one wonders if Mr. Bush was eager to avoid a fight. It's not clear where Miers stands on major issues, which gets a lot of folks on the right and left nervous. Perhaps that was one reason the president chose her; unlike the lightning rods he could have picked, Miers does not have a history of stating her views on issues like abortion or guns or privacy.

What is her reputation?

Extremely loyal to the president. But does she fit the bill of what Mr. Bush initially said he wanted? He said he was looking for a justice in the mold of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas. Given the sighs of relief by many Senate Democrats, she may not be.

How are conservatives responding to her nomination?

It’s mostly wait-and-see. Obviously, as a Bush nominee, one could surmise that she shares some of his conservative ideology. But there is the possibility that the president simply has not talked to Miers about her views. Some conservatives feel that he flubbed this nomination. Given the problems the president and his party are going through -- ethical questions regarding former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, criticism of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, the situation in Iraq, the rise in the price of gasoline -- some on the right may fear that Mr. Bush just didn’t want to court more controversy. They're concerned that Miers will not become the justice they were hoping for to make a major shift on the court. But again, it may be too soon to tell.

What do you know about her political background?

One thing that might give conservatives pause is Miers' history of campaign donations. She gave $1,000 to Democrat Al Gore when the Tennessee senator first ran for president in 1988. (Interestingly enough, had Gore won the Democratic nomination that year, he would have faced George H.W. Bush in the general election.) Miers also gave $1,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 1988 , and another $1,000 to Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who was running both for re-election to the Senate and as the Democratic nominee for vice president.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid offered this: "I have to say without any qualification that I'm very happy that we have someone like her." And when he was told about the Gore contribution, he added, "It only makes me feel better about her." That's got to get conservatives nervous when Harry Reid quickly praises a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court.

(For the record, lest we think she is the second coming of former Democratic bigwig Terry McAuliffe, Miers contributed $5,000 to Bush's 2000 campaign and $5,000 to the Bush-Cheney Recount Fund.)

Does it matter that she has never been a judge?

President Bush must have anticipated this question, because he addressed that fact when he introduced her, noting that the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist served on the court without prior experience of being a judge. (Bush also mentioned Byron White, a Kennedy appointee to the court.)

It's hard to say whether this matters and whether it offers any clues as to what kind of a Supreme Court justice Miers would be. Lewis Powell, a Nixon pick who was highly respected during his tenure on the high court, also did not have earlier experience as a judge. Earl Warren, the former governor of California whose leadership of the court in the 1950s and '60s -- a court best known for the Brown v. Board of Education decision -- never previously served on the bench. Same with William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black and Louis Brandeis. However, another who came to the court with no judicial experience was Abe Fortas. His experience is probably best described as one of personal servitude for his patron, Lyndon Johnson. "Cronyism" happens to be one word some liberals are using to describe the Bush-Miers relationship.

Anything else?

To some, the Miers choice fits a pattern. Just as Dick Cheney was the person overseeing potential running mates for Bush in 2000, only to be named to the ticket himself, Miers was one of those in charge of vetting potential Supreme Court nominees.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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