Miers' Texas Past and Controversy Today

During her career in Dallas and Austin, Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers seemed to overcome almost effortlessly the obstacles for women that were common at that time in Texas. But now, her nomination is splitting the Texas Republican Party in two.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Six former justices of the Texas Supreme Court came to Washington today to voice their approval of Harriet Miers. President Bush's Supreme Court pick has been met with a good deal of resistance, and the White House is hoping the home-state support will help her chances of winning Senate confirmation.

SIEGEL: Harriet Miers spent most of her life in her hometown, Dallas. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Dallas was not a place where women were trained to be leaders, but Miers seemed to overcome that history with ease. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story of Miers' rise and how her nomination is splitting the Texas Republican Party in two.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

The proposition that the person we are in high school will be a blueprint of what we will be like the rest of our lives is not true for everybody, but it is for Harriet Miers, Hillcrest High, class of 1963.

Mr. RON NATINSKY (North Dallas City Council): There were certain people in our class that just really stand out, and she wasn't one of those people. You knew she was there, but it wasn't a big deal.

GOODWYN: Ron Natinsky is a city councilman from north Dallas, just like Harriet Miers was in the late 1980s. But back in the day, he too was a Panther from Hillcrest High, and he went to class with Harriet.

Mr. NATINSKY: '63 in Dallas, Texas, at Hillcrest High School was "Ozzie and Harriet"-ish. You know, we still called our teachers `Yes, sir,' `Yes, ma'am.' I mean, we had a level of respect. I mean, it was like "Father Knows Best" or "Ozzie and Harriet." I mean, that's the way we lived.

GOODWYN: In 1963, north Dallas was a bubble of white tranquility that had not yet popped. Harriet Miers was the youngest daughter of a real estate investor. At Hillcrest, she was not the smartest in her class, but she was National Honor Society; she was a talented tennis player, captain of the team. Natinsky says that Harriet Miers was quietly excellent but not a star.

Mr. NATINSKY: She was dedicated to what she was doing. I think she sort of had her mission: `If I'm going to be on the tennis team, I'm going to be good at being in tennis. If I'm going to be in Latin Club, I'm going to be good at being in the Latin Club.'

Mr. DARRELL JORDAN: You could almost attribute any laudatory adjective to her and I'd sign off on it.

GOODWYN: Darrell Jordan is one of several men who've been a mentor to Harriet Miers. When Miers was at SMU Law School, her father died suddenly from a stroke. His death profoundly changed Miers' circumstances. She had to go on scholarship, and friends say she was affected, the precariousness of life brought home like a sock in the jaw. It was not long after Miers had graduated from law school that Jordan spotted her. He liked her from the beginning.

Mr. JORDAN: I think it was her very sincere demeanor and her straightforwardness, her willingness to do any task that needed to be done--all of these things. And it was the combination of them that made me think that Harriet would be somebody worthy of investing some time in and getting to know better and encouraging to become very active in the Dallas Bar.

GOODWYN: In a profession dominated by workaholic men, Miers outworked them all. She rose through the ranks of Locke, Purnell, Rain & Harrell practicing corporate law. After Jordan became president of the Dallas Bar Association, Miers followed, becoming the first woman president in the bar's history. When Miers decided to run for Dallas City Council in 1989, it was Jordan who helped raise the money. It was a very short City Council career because two years later Jordan was there again suggesting she campaign to become the first woman president of the state bar of Texas. It would be another Miers first. Darrell Jordan is mystified at the resistance to his protege by some conservatives.

Mr. JORDAN: I'm not particularly interested in commenting on what they think she is or what they want her to be. I'm telling you what I think she is. I think she will be seen as much like Sandra Day O'Connor. Yes, she's conservative, but she makes up her own mind. And her decisions will be based on what she thinks is right based on the law, based on precedent, based on the things that any good judge would consider.

Ms. MARY SPATHE: I liked and admired and respected Sandra Day O'Connor, but at the end of her term she had no judicial philosophy.

GOODWYN: The prospect that Miers might be another Sandra Day O'Connor is exactly the problem for some Texas Republicans, and their numbers are not necessarily small. Mary Spathe(ph) is a 20-year friend and colleague of Harriet Miers. She was Ronald Reagan's director of media relations. She was also a key organizer of the Swift Boat Campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry. When Miers was first appointed, Spathe publicly backed the president's choice, but she's changed her mind.

Ms. SPATHE: I guess it would be too strong to call it civil war, but there is an enormous amount of turmoil here. It's not about Harriet. You won't find anyone to say a negative word about Harriet because we like her, we admire her, we respect her. But this is the high court. It's not an appellate court.

GOODWYN: This is a moment conservatives have been working toward for 20 years. The Supreme Court has stymied them for nearly half a century. With Bush's popularity on the decline and many Americans dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, Spathe believes the moment for real change is now. And with the way some Republican nominees to the Supreme Court have turned out, Spathe doesn't want any mistakes this time.

Ms. SPATHE: It has to do with Bush's legacy; has to do with the party in the '06 elections. It's very puzzling to have someone who is so bright and so dedicated and so savvy of absolutely no expression of interest in these extremely interesting issues that involve the judiciary, its proper role. For somebody at Harriet's level to be nominated to the high court without any indication of interest in these things is extremely unusual and, therefore, is making a lot of people very nervous.

GOODWYN: Spathe wants someone who's got a conservative track record. She says she gets e-mails listing 18 reasons why she should support the president's choice, but she's also getting e-mails asking her to do another Swift Boat veteran campaign, this time against Harriet Miers.

Mr. JIM FRANCIS: To my conservative friends who are worried that she's a closet liberal or that she might change her opinion in 20 years, President Bush has worked with this woman for 15 years, and he understands her brain her than all of us put together. You know, I don't know what qualifications they're hunting for.

GOODWYN: Jim Francis is the man who introduced Harriet Miers to George Bush back in 1994 when Bush first ran for governor. Francis has long been one of the top Texas Republican organizers, and Bush had come to him seeking guidance. Since Bush was running against the popular and charismatic Ann Richards, Francis suggested he put some high-profile women in his campaign, like Harriet Miers, a rising star he knew from Dallas. It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

Mr. FRANCIS: It was an evolutionary process, but over time the campaign and candidate Bush began to see that her advice was always on the mark, that she was a great thinker, that she really knows the law and she does her homework. And when you see that in your lawyer day in and day out, week in and week out, obviously a relationship of confidence begins to build.

GOODWYN: Francis argues that when it comes to conservative judicial appointments, President Bush has earned the benefit of the doubt.

Mr. FRANCIS: Most conservatives believe President Bush has made, up to Harriet, the best judicial appointments, whether it's district level or the appellate court or his one Supreme Court, of any president in the 20th century.

GOODWYN: Jim Francis is a conservative's conservative. Ask if he's been wounded by the contentious debate inside his party over his longtime friend...

Mr. FRANCIS: I am a little disappointed that people who I consider wise, loyal, patriotic people, who genuinely believe their positions, would emotionally jump to a conclusion without even hearing her give testimony. You know, that goes against the grain of everything I know about thinking conservatives. This is a fearful reaction. This is not a confident reaction saying, `All right, we'll look.'

GOODWYN: If there is one thing that all Harriet Miers' classmates and friends and colleagues in Dallas share, it's genuine respect and affection for her. As to whether she would be their kind of Supreme Court justice, that depends on what their kind is. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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