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Judicial blank slate may not be so blank after all

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers may not be the judicial tabula rasa people think she is. Her past stance on social issues suggest a moderate position on gay rights, an interest in advancing women and minorities and sympathy for anti-abortion efforts.
Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers meets with Sen. Charles Grassley on Capitol Hill
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. Yuri Gripas / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers’ footprints on contentious social issues suggest a moderate position on gay rights, an interest in advancing women and minorities and sympathy for anti-abortion efforts. Judging from the Smith & Wesson she once packed, she favors gun rights, too.

Miers’ years as a corporate lawyer and White House insider have produced a record so scant that court-watchers are picking through 16-year-old Dallas city council votes and the like to divine how she might come down on constitutional matters.

She is not a completely blank slate.

A decade before the 2001 terrorist attacks, Miers defended constitutional freedoms in a time of danger, with words that would hearten two groups of activists in the post-9/11 world of added police powers — civil libertarians and the gun lobby.

“The same liberties that ensure a free society make the innocent vulnerable to those who prevent rights and privileges and commit senseless and cruel acts,” she wrote in Texas Lawyer, when she was president of the state bar. “Those precious liberties include free speech, freedom to assemble ... access to public places, the right to bear arms and freedom from constant surveillance.

“We are not willing to sacrifice these rights because of the acts of maniacs.”

Former gun owner
Miers once owned a .45-caliber revolver, a gift from a brother who was worried about her safety when she lived alone in Dallas, says Judge Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court, who has known Miers for 30 years and has dated her.

“It’s a huge gun — he wanted to be sure she stopped the guy,” Hecht said in a telephone interview. The judge recalled one Sunday afternoon driving out to the country, setting up tin cans on a dirt road and trying to teach Miers how to shoot.

How was her aim?

“She was terrible,” said Hecht, who added that she kept the gun for a long time but said he was unsure if she ever fired it again.

Hybrid style of justice
In her writings, Miers has pitched a brand of criminal justice that borrowed from the right and the left. On one hand, she insisted, “Punishment of wrongdoers should be swift and sure,” and she appeared to have little patience for those who would excuse an act of violence by blaming society.

On the other hand, she pressed for more money to improve legal representation for indigent defendants and said root causes of crime — poverty, lack of mental and other health care, inadequate education and family dysfunction — must be addressed.

On the issue that commands the most attention for court nominees, Miers pressed unsuccessfully to have the American Bar Association put its policy in favor of abortion rights to a vote of the membership, showing a sensitivity, at least, to the anti-abortion movement, if not outright support of it.

Hecht said she has attended an evangelical church in Dallas, the Valley View Christian Church, for 25 years and “their position is pro-life and I’m sure her views are compatible with theirs.”

Miers bought a $150 ticket to a Texas anti-abortion group’s fund-raising dinner in 1989, the year she won a term on the Dallas city council, the group’s president said. Kyleen Wright of the Texans for Life Coalition, then called Texans United for Life, said the dinner drew about 30 other officeholders or candidates as “bronze patrons,” the lowest level of financial support.

“One would have to assume she is at least moderately pro-life, but how far that commitment goes, I really don’t know,” Wright said. “No one I know in the pro-life or pro-family movement knows her, locally or around the state.”

In 1992, Miers said presidents have no business asking court nominees to toe their line on abortion.

“Nominees are clearly prohibited from making such a commitment, and presidents are prohibited from asking for it,” she said. People who think such inquiries are proper show “a misunderstanding of the separation of powers by proposing that judicial nominees should mirror a president’s views.”

In her current job as White House counsel, however, it is certain Bush already knows her opinion on a variety of issues.

In one of the few head-on expositions of her views on public policy, a short gay-rights survey she filled out during her city council campaign in 1989, Miers backed equal civil rights for homosexuals and spending on AIDS education while defending a Texas law — since overturned by the Supreme Court — that made gay sex a crime.

Despite that paradox, a leading gay-rights group credited her Tuesday with an open mind.

“It’s only a small window into her thinking,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, “but it certainly, for me, raises the possibility that she’s more fair-minded than our opponents are hoping.”

Some see ‘down-home values’
The question on civil rights on the old survey did not pin respondents down on any of the issues typically associated with gay equality today, such as domestic partner benefits or same-sex unions. Kelly Shackelford, president of the socially conservative Free Market Foundation, played down the significance of Miers’ answer, saying he, too, could have answered yes to it.

Shackelford credited her with “basic Texas down-home values.”

Solmonese said the fact Miers even came to a meeting of a Dallas gay and lesbian group to answer its questions suggested a wish to reach out.

“She’s pro-family but not condemnatory,” Hecht said.

Miers asserted during her city council campaign that “employers should be able to pick the best qualified person for any position, to be filled considering all relevant factors,” a position that does not seem in support of mandatory affirmative action. In her own legal career, she broke a glass ceiling and led the way for others.

Trailblazer in Texas
In 1972, Miers was the first woman hired by the Dallas law firm of Locke Purnell Rain Harrell, when Texas was far from friendly terrain for women attorneys.

Linda Eads, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who was deputy attorney general in Texas, recalls inappropriate questions during job interviews as well as male attorneys who couldn’t imagine a high-powered woman at their firm.

The questions ranged “from what I was doing about birth control to how could you possibly think union leaders would want to talk to a girl,” Eads said.

At Locke Purnell, Miers worked to ensure that more women joined the firm.

Tom Connop, a partner at the firm — now known as Locke Liddell & Sapp — said Miers was an advocate of employing not only women but minorities, reflected in the more than a dozen female associates in 1984.

In 1996, Miers became the firm’s first female president.

“Every woman lawyer in Dallas, Texas, owes a debt to Harriet Miers,” said Robin P. Hartmann, a partner with the Dallas law firm of Haynes and Boone who argued cases with and against Miers.