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The Miers the world missed

Friends and colleagues of Harriet Miers are angry. They say the White House never introduced the  Miers they know to the Senate or the country — the one they know as an accomplished lawyer with a deeply personal sense of justice that she acts out on a daily basis.
White House counsel Harriet Miers walks to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House compound Thursday in Washington.Charles Dharapak / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Jerry Clements was getting ready yesterday to tape a television commercial supporting the confirmation of her friend and former law partner, Harriet Miers, as a Supreme Court Justice when she heard Charles Gibson announcing Miers's withdrawal on "Good Morning America." Enraged, Clements canceled an afternoon flight to Austin, deciding instead to drive and to use the time on the open road to blow off steam.

"I was incredibly saddened and disappointed that this person who had devoted her life to the legal profession never had a chance to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee and get a hearing," Clements said from her car.

Darrell Jordan, a prominent Dallas attorney and loyal Republican, also had planned to appear in the commercial. Instead, he spent the time fielding call after call from infuriated fellow lawyers and civic leaders, including one who declared, "I'm proud to be a Democrat because of the way you Republicans acted on this."

"The process she was going through completely misunderstood the person she was," said Jordan, who preceded Miers as president of the Dallas and Texas bars. "The stories of Harriet Miers's compassion and willingness to help the small people are legendary in Dallas. I think that ability to listen and to lead with character would've made her very important on the court."

Their anger sprang from a feeling that the White House never introduced the Harriet Miers they know to the Senate or the country. That Miers is an accomplished lawyer with a deeply personal sense of justice that she acts out on a daily basis, they said. Selling her to the Republican right primarily as a Christian conservative simply didn't do her justice, they said.

For example, no senators ever heard about Caroline Ware. The single mother of nine came to Miers in the 1970s as a pro bono client who needed help with a name change. Miers did the paperwork, but what Ware, now 62, most remembers was what came afterward.

When Ware, a nurse's aide, was wrongfully arrested on a charge of forging an elderly client's name on a check, Miers came to the Dallas jail in the middle of the night, bailed her out and got the charge dropped. When Ware and her children were threatened with eviction, Miers put down $700 of her own money to keep them off the streets. When Ware was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, Miers hired a registered nurse to care for her children. And then there was Christmas, when Miers would arrive with clothes and coats for each of Ware's children — "and they were new!" Ware said.

‘She brought me back’
"I was just lost, really losing my mind, and she brought me back," Ware said from the living room of her small brick house in working-class west Dallas.

Miers's close friends, partners and relatives said in interviews that she never told them about Ware or other pro bono clients, although they said they were not surprised by the story. Ware's name came to light in one of Miers's responses to a Judiciary Committee questionnaire. (She cited Ware v. Schweiker — an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to secure federal disability benefits for Ware — as evidence of her federal appellate experience.)

Nor did Washington hear from young associates at Miers's law firm — notably minority and female lawyers whom she mentored ever so subtly, pulling them in on major cases and often staying late to critique their legal memos. "Some partners would say, 'You should join the black chamber of commerce,' but Harriet was always about helping you enter the mainstream," said Julia Simon, now vice president for legal resources at Mary Kay Inc., the Dallas-based cosmetics company.

Conservatives in Washington complained that Miers had not articulated a coherent judicial philosophy. But friends and colleagues in Dallas said she was respected precisely because she rarely talked about herself, preferring actions to words. Law partners said she never called for racial or gender quotas, although they witnessed her commitment to diversifying the firm daily. Partner Don Glendenning said it was not unusual to walk into meetings with major clients and notice a young Hispanic or African American or female associate seated next to managing partner Miers.

"Harriet worked very hard 30 years ago to get the good old white boys to treat her like one of the men, so creating that atmosphere of normalcy for women and Hispanics and African Americans was very important to her," Glendenning said.

"In a very informal way, she took me under her wing and allowed me to see the things that she did in the practice of law, and I have modeled what I've done after that," said Shonn Brown, an African American associate hired by Miers in 1998 who is up for partner this year. Brown said Miers's support went beyond law. When she told Miers in 2000 that she had become engaged, Miers insisted on throwing a wedding shower.

"It was for about 50 people," Brown recalled. "She hosted it at her home and invited our families." Miers cooked all the food, too.

There is no question among those who know her that Miers's values came from her life experience. An older brother, Harris "Buddy" Miers Jr., who owns a health care business, recalled that their mother used to read poetry to her five children, attaching a lesson to each poem. "I remember her reading, 'The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck,' " he said, "and from that would come a lesson about devotion to duty and the need for courage." When Sally Miers made rice pudding, Buddy Miers recalled, the children would thank her and she would respond: "I enjoyed making it. It is better to give than receive."

"When you hear this all your childhood, it gets programmed," he said.

Although raised in affluent North Dallas, Miers faced hardship as a college freshman when her father was incapacitated by a stroke, leaving his real estate business in shambles and the family in debt. Miers was going to drop out of college until her mother — who herself had been forced to leave school in fifth grade to care for younger siblings — called the president of Southern Methodist University and persuaded him to give her daughter a scholarship and a job in the computer lab. SMU's support allowed Miers to finish college and then law school, where she made law review and was one of eight women in a graduating class of 97.

About the same time, Sally Miers hired a Dallas attorney named Otto Mullinax, who untangled Harris Miers Sr.'s business dealings and rescued the family from debt. Mullinax, well known as a lawyer for labor unions and Democratic causes, became a hero to Harriet Miers and her family, and she said in a 1991 interview that he made her aware of the power of the law.

"Role models are very important and heroes are needed in our society," said Buddy Miers. "He was a hero to all of us."

Thriving under demanding male bosses
Miers seemed to have a talent for thriving under fiercely demanding male bosses who intimidated most men. Her father had been one; so was U.S. District Judge Joe Estes, for whom she clerked, and Stanley Neely, a senior partner who supervised and ultimately championed her as a young associate at what was then Locke Purnell. It was Estes who called Neely and insisted that the firm, which had never hired a female attorney, give Miers an interview.

"He called me up one morning and told me that she was coming over to interview with us, and he proceeded to tell me what he thought about her, which was the highest praise I've ever heard," Neely told Texas Lawyer in 1996.

"I don't think she has ever stopped feeling indebted to people who helped her out when she needed help," said Jim Martin, a Dallas attorney who was engaged to Miers in the early 1970s. "That sense of responsibility to others was absolutely overwhelming in her as a guiding principle. It was always: I need to measure up to the confidence placed in me."

Ultimately, Martin said, he and Miers realized that her sense of responsibility to her work was taking precedence over their relationship, and they ended their engagement.

Miers navigated the roles of first female partner and first female president of the Dallas and state bars while staying well inside the conventions of Southern womanhood. "She was very shy, very feminine, very quiet, but never timid," said her friend Ann Simmons, who was hired as a paralegal at Locke Purnell when Miers arrived as the first-ever female associate. Simmons remembered the men's surprise when Miers, a high school and college tennis player, came to the firm's annual softball outing and clobbered every pitch she got.

"Here comes this little feminine woman hitting the ball harder than them," Simmons said. "Harriet does it quietly, and when it's done, she doesn't make a big deal out of it."

‘Unusual ability to sublimate herself’
Miers's colleagues said she always put the interests of the firm and the law ahead of her own. As a city council member, she cast the deciding vote for a redistricting plan that ensured the election of more minority members, while abolishing her own seat. Her partners selected her to lead the firm as it went into a merger, said Glendenning, "because she had this unusual ability to sublimate herself and put what was best for the firm ahead of what was best for her." As a tribute to her sense of fairness, he gave her a compass for her 50th birthday engraved: "To Harriet Miers, whose moral compass always points 'do right.'"

Much of what offended conservatives about Miers came from speeches she made as state bar association president, in which she explored practical solutions to such emotional issues as abortion and prayer in schools. Friends say the speeches reflected the Miers they knew, who searched hard for fairness and justice. Conservatives said they saw a closet liberal lurking in what she said.

One of many speeches Miers submitted to the Judiciary Committee may suggest how she will go on from here. Leadership, she said, requires staying true to one's beliefs whether they are popular or not. "That we do not receive acclamation or maybe lose an election is not a finding we were wrong," she said. "It simply means we lost."

Russakoff reported from Dallas; Davis reported from Washington. Staff writer Jo Becker and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.