Waiting to be Dazzled by Miers

The president and his aides are peeved at conservatives who have dared raise objections to the nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. They need to get over it — and quickly. The president’s popularity is at an all-time low, and he needs his base now more than ever if he is to accomplish his agenda over the remaining two years of his presidency. There are good and legitimate reasons why many conservatives were unnerved by Miers’ nomination, and, so far, the White House has done little to allay concerns. Trotting out Miers’ pastor and old boyfriend (who happens also to be a judge) to vouch for her and touting her Evangelical Christian faith won’t substitute for clear insight into Miers’ judicial philosophy. And I’m not talking about her personal views on controversial issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.

We conservatives can’t have it both ways. We didn’t want Chief Justice John Roberts grilled on his views on Roe v. Wade or any other hot-button decisions, and we insisted that his devout Roman Catholicism was off-limits as a legitimate subject of inquiry. We can’t now turn around and say we must know whether Miers is pro-life or delve into her born-again experience as a proxy for understanding her judicial philosophy. Even if she answered such questions, there is simply no guarantee that her personal life or present views are a guide to her future actions on the court, nor should they be.

I want to know how she forms her views. I want to know what she thinks the role of the courts is — and why. I want to know her intellectual habits. What does she read? Has she spent time grappling with ideas? When confronted with unfamiliar territory, how does she prepare herself to learn what she needs to know in her professional life? Is she a curious person by nature? What does she expect of her subordinates when they are briefing her on an important matter? Is she good at playing devil’s advocate? Is she a student of history? In the long run, answers to questions like these will be a more reliable barometer of her performance on the court than her current opinion on any given issue.

Harriet Miers is doubtless an able lawyer, but her career gives us no indication that she has the requisite knowledge and skill to be an effective justice. We know she has been ambitious and successful and can assume she is very bright. But she has largely chosen administrative and managerial roles in her legal career. She was the managing partner of a large Dallas law firm — the first woman to achieve that distinction, as the White House keeps reminding us. We should assume that she is good at bureaucratic in-fighting or she would never have climbed so high in her firm or in the local and state bar associations, where she became president — again the first woman to do so.

Those qualifications made her an excellent choice for White House staff secretary (a job that entails managing the flow of official letters, proclamations and other written material in the Executive Office) and later deputy chief of staff. As the president’s former personal lawyer, the choice of Miers to replace White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales when he became attorney general also made sense. But none of her previous positions necessarily qualifies her for the role she’s now being asked to assume. The burden is on the president and Miers to demonstrate that she’s up to the job.

She should have the opportunity to do so when the Judiciary Committee takes up her nomination. The problem will be that in this highly polarized political environment, she won’t get much of a chance to allay our fears. The Democrats’ main goal will be to embarrass the president and protect what they see as the last hope for the triumph of the liberal agenda: the Supreme Court. Too many Republicans will be thinking about their own political fortunes and whether backing the president’s nominee or opposing her will be more likely to ensure their re-elections.

The president keeps assuring us that Miers will dazzle everyone at these hearings. I’d rather there were fewer atmospherics and more substance from both sides of the aisle.